Friday, October 18, 2013

Calling For Back-Up: Sidekicks and Henchmen

Batman and Robin
Photo by Dave Keeshan, via Flickr
In an earlier posting, I noted the fact that Heroes and Villains alike are intelligent, resourceful, and charismatic. It naturally follows that individual members of both parties should attract followers. Those attached to a Hero are popularly referred to as Sidekicks; those attached to a Villain are commonly known as Henchmen (or alternatively “minions”1).

Insofar as these subordinate characters perform similar narrative functions, they belong to the same species. When it comes to personal affinities, however, they belong to rival clans. This installment will be devoted to examining the points of comparison. I will be exploring their distinctive differences in Part 2.

No man is an island. This saying holds true for the Heroes and Villains that occupy the pages of modern Fantasy. These individuals can exist as one or the other only in a populated environment – which is where this discussion begins.

Sidekicks and Henchmen bring their respective principles to life, first of all, by giving them someone to talk to. These exchanges can serve as vehicles for exposition. From a writer’s perspective, one sure-fire way of cranking up the narrative tension is to let us listen in on a private conversation between the Villain and his chief Henchman. If we know something that the Hero and his Sidekicks don’t know, the suspense will keep us turning pages to see how the situation plays out.

“Stage business” is a vital aspect of all good writing. Sidekicks and Henchmen enliven the narrative by giving their principles someone to interact with. Setting up an interactive scenario between your Hero and his/her Sidekick (even something as simple as building a fire) is a dynamic way to establish character and/or foster character development. It fulfils the all-important precept: show, don’t tell!

The third vital function performed by Sidekicks and Henchmen alike is to carry out tasks delegated by their superiors. These auxiliary activities expand the narrative framework, enrich the story texture, and promote plot development. This is true, even when plans miscarry through the meddlesome agency of the opposition.

Sidekicks and Henchmen, on the surface of things, share a number of the same attributes. Those attributes include loyalty, fortitude, obedience, and a capacity to carry out orders efficiently. Here, however, we come to a fork in the road: on closer inspection, the qualities which define a good Sidekick are largely conditional in a Henchman.

Stay tuned for the next installment on Monday.


1 The Despicable Me films may have redefined the word minion in perpetuity. (I mean, who wouldn’t want a Minion - or better yet, several?)

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. Interesting look at those secondary characters, and I do like calling them Minion much better that secondary characters. (smile) Bit players can also add depth to a story. For instance instead of just having a generic medical examiner, have one who has an Albert Einstein hairdo and a bow tie. Maybe he, or she, is only in the story for the autopsy, but I would enjoy meeting a character like that.

  2. Sidekicks and henchmen, or friends and foes, provide the interpersonal conflicts in a story. They earn page time when they have a stake in or opinion on the central conflict, create obstacles, or provide solutions - not to be confused with walk-ons.

  3. Hmm...are you suggesting that the interaction between the villain and his henchman might qualify as a kind of honor among thieves, so to speak? Actually, the idea of rounding out the bad guys as well as the good guys has much merit. Also, drawing the comparisons as you did provides food for thought, as well as opens the door for a bad guy to pose as a good guy if it suits his purpose -- because he does possess those good-guy qualities. I like this post a lot, Debby; I'll no doubt be putting the idea to practical use because I'm writing again.

  4. My problem is that often these sidekicks and henchmen are much more fun to write than our main characters, because they don't have to carry the story, and have a much more flexible character arc. I often find that I have to go back and cut scenes that aren't doing anything but letting me listen in on interesting conversations.


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