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Storytelling 101: The role of the sidekick

Claire Celsi is a public relations practitioner in West Des Moines, Iowa.

We've known it for centuries: Storytelling is an effective way to communicate information. A narrative with relatable characters engrosses us and makes us stick around to learn the ending. We become invested in the outcome of the story - and in the process - we're more likely to remember the moral of the story. Donkey-in-shrek-the-third_wallpaper

The sidekick - who typically has a lower station in life and has less power than the protagonist - often provides much needed logistical support, advice and even comedic relief. But don't let the sidekick's lowly status fool you. The storyteller can use the sidekick in meaningful ways to improve the storyline and highlight the main character (protagonist). Here are some ways the sidekick can help the story move along:

  1. Highlight the attributes of the main character: The main character in a story can have a cathartic change during the course of the story. Sometimes, using the sidekick as the "explainer" works as a way to highlight the internal struggles that the main character is facing. A perfect example of this is how Donkey humorously interpreted Shrek's ongoing struggle to regain control of his swamp.
  2. Provide the back story (history) of the main character: There are ways to show past events in visual stories and books - like the flashback - that can inform the reader or viewer of a past event that has shaped the main character. The sidekick can provide a convenient shortcut for the storyteller. Rafiki, the wise monkey in Lion King was often the one who reminded Simba the Lion of his lineage and responsibilities, influencing him to make the right decisons.
  3. Contribute complementary skill sets to those the main character lacks: In Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant intuition of Sherlock Holmes was complemented by Dr. Watson, who brought his brilliant analytical mind to the duo. Watson also becomes the person who makes sure Holmes' skills are recognized in the London press when a case is solved.

There is one very important thing to keep in mind when creating a sidekick character in a story. It may sound harsh, but the sidekick shouldn't have much of a life story of their own. The sidekick's role is to support the main character - not distract from the main storyline. If you develop the sidekick's life story too much, they lose that special "sidekick quality" and just become a co-equal actor in the story.

Sidekicks are readily seen in advertising, but also appear in PR and branding. (remember the lonely Maytag repairman and his apprentice?). Using a story with a sidekick in a PR pitch is smart, especially if trying to quickly build empathy for a cause. A good example is featuring the friend of a cancer survivor shaving their head to show support, while raising money for a good cause. Everyone can relate to the heartache that comes with being the friend of someone who is suffering.

Including a sidekick is a smart way to add dimension to a story and provide opportunities for extra insight into the main character. Elementary, my dear Watson.

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