We’re #2, So We Try Harder

Backups, Sidekicks, & Henchfolk

Heroes and villains step aside: We’re here to talk about your lieutenants, your seconds in command, your BFF, your life partners. These #2 characters might not be the focus of the narrative, but necessary to give the hero a reality check—and sometimes have their own heroic moments. What is the purpose of these characters? What are their demographics (why do a lot of female, BIPOC or otherwise marginalized characters end up being paired with white cishet #1s)? What are the characteristics of the best ones? Which ones stand out?

At the titular panel at ChiCon8, otherwise known as WorldCon 80, Michael Mammay moderated Terri Ash, Red, Lucy A. Synk, and Blue in sharing their trope knowledge and writing tips with the rest of us.

Why Writers Like Sidekicks

  • Not limited by the needs of the story and plot the way the main character is
  • They point out flaws in the system
  • Having a foil for the main character… makes the main character more interesting!

What do we mean by ‘foil’?

The foil has traits that accentuate the other character’s traits — flaws or virtues — by virtue of contrast.

Things to Remember When Writing Sidekicks

  • Every character has their own life that doesn’t necessarily revolve around the main character
  • They all come into a scene with their own wants and needs
  • Don’t need to show their whole plot and emotional arcs on page, though

#2’s in The Five-Man Band

All about Lancers!

According to TV Tropes, the standard ‘Five-Man Band‘ consists of: the Leader, the Lancer (their number #2), the Big Guy, the Smart Guy, and the Chick. These days, we’re drifting away from the gendered stereotypes, but a lot of these archetypes still play out, because the roles were balanced, if not who was playing which role.

So what draws us to them?

  • They do the hard work (and get none of the credit)
  • They’re relatable
  • They’re more interesting as people than the ‘hero’
  • More snark! and humor
  • They keep the main character sane
  • They’re either the moral center or the one the hero has to keep on the straighter and narrower

Types of Lancers/#2s

  • serious truth-sayer
  • ex-villain who does the hard thing
  • silly side kick
  • Starscream (Transformers)
  • Rival
  • Keeps the hero from taking themselves too seriously
  • Caretaker
  • The apprentice (Batman & Robin)
  • Military rank makes them next in command
  • A parent/child relationship

Sidekicks that aren’t a challenge (to the hero)

  • Caretakers – (Samwise from Lord of the Rings or Watson with Sherlock Holmes)
  • Oathsworn (fealty)
  • There to remind them who they’re fighting for
  • Acting as the audience proxy – often an apprentice
  • Henches – (The Bakerstreet Urchins in the Sherlock Holmes books)
  • Grumpy Parental Figure (Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender)

More Popular Sidekicks

Some sidekicks are more popular than the hero they’re working with. Although, it’s more likely to happen when the main character isn’t an anti-hero, because those are typically more complex characters.

  • Samwise (Lord of the Rings)
  • Bucky (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
  • Willow (Buffy)
  • Watson (In some Sherlock Holmes adaptations)

Recommended Books with Great Sidekicks

Or, maybe, not even a main character!


Do you have any favorite sidekicks or henchfolk the panelists missed? Let me know!

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