Monday, October 21, 2013

Calling for Back-Up: Sidekicks and Henchmen - Part 2

The previous posting on the subject of Sidekicks vs. Henchmen was devoted to exploring what these secondary characters have in common.  In this installment, we’ll be examining the significant ways in which they differ.

Broadly speaking, there are two issues to be considered.  On the one hand, there is the personal relationship which exists between the group leader and his/her second-in-command.  On the other, there is the question of how henchmen relate to one another as members of a group.

One key difference between Sidekicks and Henchmen is predicated on altruism.

A Sidekick, consciously or unconsciously, is dedicated to serving some Greater Good as embodied by the Hero.  A Sidekick has the best interests of the Hero at heart.  His operant faculty is intuition:  in extreme instances, a good Sidekick will “go with his gut” even if that means disobeying a direct order given by the Hero.  If, in spite of all good intentions, a Sidekick screws up, he can count on the Hero to forgive the miscalculation and give him a second chance.  

A Henchman, by contrast, serves the Villain either (a) as long as the pay-off makes it worth his while, or (b) until he can wriggle out from under whatever form of duress the Villain has been using to keep him in line.  A high-grade Henchman (i.e., someone with brains and talent) is always on the lookout for an opportunity to become a Villain in his own right.  The Villain is aware of this possibility.  If a Henchman screws up, the Villain will take decisive measures to ensure he never repeats the mistake.

Next, there’s the issue of group dynamics.

Any group of Sidekicks will be a motley crew. (Diversity is much more interesting than similarity!)  What keeps them together is loyalty to the Hero in pursuit of a Common Cause.  Members of a band of Sidekicks can – and do - squabble amongst themselves (especially when mixed genders are involved).  However, when the chips are down, Sidekicks will set all their differences aside and rally around their Hero, even in the face of death.

Members of a group of Henchmen, by contrast, nurse their rivalries and look for opportunities to assert themselves at the expense of their associates.  The more intelligent and ambitious members of the group are constantly seeking opportunities to advance themselves.  In the event of a crisis, Henchmen will retain their group identity only as long as the authority of their leader remains in force.  If and when that authority breaks down, there will be a power struggle.  Whoever emerges on top will eliminate any surviving members of the Group who aren’t prepared to accept his ascendancy.  After that, it becomes a question of survival. 

In the final analysis, however, the most interesting Sidekick or Henchman is one with the potential to change sides.  My next posting will be devoted to characters like these under the heading of Chameleons. 


1   In the real world, altruism is one of the most perplexing puzzles confronting students of human behavior. From a purely rational-materialist standpoint, there is no logical reason why anybody in his/her right mind should promote another person’s well-being at the expense of his/her own.  Nevertheless, against all reason, the daily news resonates with stories of individuals who make extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of strangers.

2 Though Fantasy literature abounds in female Sidekicks, once again in the interests of economy, I’m going to treat masculine pronouns as generic.

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


  1. Debby, what a valuable post! This step back so we can see the broad view is saving writers who read this hours upon ours of their own research. Thank you!

    After their father died my sons and I would pile into an easy chair and watch Hercules with Kevin Sorbo. We loved his sidekick, Iolaus.

  2. It really boils down to motive, doesn't it? Does the sidekick serve another, or is he self-serving? As you mention, sidekicks can change sides; altruistic ones can suddenly be in it for the rewards rather than contributing (perhaps anonymously) to the hero's cause. Of course, it can go the other way, too; but as Terry pointed out in her comment on the first installment of this discussion, the bad ones who stay bad are more fun to write about.

  3. Excellent post, Debby, and as I read your description of sidekicks, I couldn't help but think about episodic television shows that have or had "a motley crew of sidekicks." One that came to mind was "Leverage." Not only was the crew varied, the characters were presented against stereotype. For example the woman was the "tough guy" and the African American character was the brains of the outfit. I do love it when an author goes against stereotype. It makes for a much more engaging and memorable character.

  4. I think a secondary cast can make or break a story. I hate "script called for it" characters One of my favorite twists is the BBC show Luther where the sleuth's sidekick is a sociopath. It isn't logical but it is fun and unexpected. She is able to do things the sleuth would never get away with and causes huge problems for him to overcome.


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