Friday, August 7, 2015

Sidekicks Part 1

(Or “Why Your Ally Shouldn’t Exist”)

Today begins a series of posts by yours truly. Obviously.
Less obvious, however, is what the series is about. Sort of.

In short, I’m titling the series “Allies in August” because of the month, but really they’ll all be labeled “Sidekicks Part 1/2/3”. Then I’ll have the real title of the post and then the actual post.
So, applying our newfound knowledge, today’s post is the first in the series, and it’s about allies who shouldn’t exist.

Sure, Deyu's not an Ally, but it's a nice picture, right?
Before we begin to get to the real meat of this post, I want to talk a little about the Ally.
This poor fellow (or… fellowette? Fellowy? Fellay?) is forced to accompany your main character through the most dangerous adventures in his/her entire life. They’re not central to the story, their death won’t mean the villain wins, and chances are they wish they were the love interest instead. At least if they were the love interest the main character would try harder to save them from the clutches of the evil overlord.
They will get bruises, bumps, hunger pains, dehydration, countless cuts and skinned knees, at least one broken bone, an ugly scar on their face and/or hand, and might even die.

Woe to those who desire to be an ally, for they will suffer and be rewarded little for their aid.

Based on this, it is easy to wonder why anyone would want to be an ally. I know I wouldn’t. I’ve got my own goals in life; I’m too busy to be swept off by my friend (who I probably just met) to go hunting dragons. Who hunts dragons in North America anyway?
But there are still allies. They still hang around; still sacrifice their own desires for the hero’s.


What makes your ally give up his grand dream of becoming the world’s first person to skydive without a parachute and survive?
Quite simply, because the ally feels some sense of loyalty toward the hero. (Also because the cruel author made them.)

I’ve read many a novel where the ally doesn’t feel like a real person. In fact, they feel more like a robot. That is, feeling-less. The ally (regardless of how well they know the hero) mindlessly joins the hero’s quest, throwing aside all of their own wants and goals. Sure, they feel emotions, but they’re not real emotions. They’re reactions to something the ally never should have been feeling in the first place.

These sorts of allies are the kind who exists merely for the sake of the author. The hero needs help, so why not give them a random friend to help? Make said friend good at blacksmithing, carpentry, swordsmanship, or humor, and you’ve got a way for the hero to achieve his goal.
But… is that how characters are supposed to be made? Are they simply tools, means to an end?

Of all the characters, the Ally seems to be the most often ignored, undeveloped, and least useful. They never have goals of their own, desires, hopes, and dreams. Even if they do, these objects of their wanting somehow happen to be identical to the hero’s story goal.
How convenient.
Today, today I want to address this sort of ally.
The ally who does nothing but what the hero wants, desires nothing but what the hero needs, and achieves nothing that is not involved in the hero’s schemes.
The ally that doesn’t need to exist.

Before I give you a list (because lists are my favorite) of things which point toward a useless ally, I want to give you an example. And before I give you the example, you need to understand that this example is only my opinion. Others can and will disagree with me. That’s okay. But this is where I get my turn at the soapbox. Feel free to take your turn in the comments section at the end. Soapboxes for everyone!

My example is from a rather popular young teen fantasy series called The Ranger’s Apprentice. In this series, a kid named Will becomes (you guessed it) apprenticed to a ranger. Somewhere along the lines (it’s been ages since I read the first few, so pardon me as I forget and am too lazy to look it up) of the first two/three books, young Will meets a boy named Horace.
Horace the Horace
Horace is the ally of the series.
And he didn’t need to exist.
If you took Horace out of the series, nothing would chance. Sure, Will would need to have worked harder to achieve his goal, and half of the horrid puns would be missing, but nothing of great importance would change.
That… that is a sign that a character is not needed. (And I won’t go into the horrid puns section… case in point, there.)
Why then, does Horace exist?
Will needed him to. (More correctly, the author, John Flanagan, needed him to exist.) It made the story goal so much easier to achieve for Will when he had a trusty, stocky swordsman at his back making stupid jokes and killing enemies who escaped Will’s arrows.
Great job, Horace. You deserve a medal for bravery, a horrible sense of humor, and the ability to lessen tension.
After all, as long as Horace is around, Will is safe in close quarters (and as long as Will is around, Horace has only to kill the one brute Will can’t shoot in time).

Horace is not his own person. His goals seem to be identical to Will’s: Protect the kingdom. Kill bad people. Train to be a warrior. Crack ridiculous puns (so when I said I wouldn’t address the humor…). Get the girl (thankfully a different girl than Will; no love triangle around here for very long).
There is nothing Horace wants (if I’m wrong, please remind me, it has been a while) that conflicts with what Will wants. At least nothing that lasts, nor anything which is decided in Horace’s favor.

It would be better if Horace had never existed. Will would have needed to try harder, be cleverer, more resourceful, and more real.

Now. I’d like to share a very short list of ways in which allies become the kind of character that are unnecessary.

-They have the same goals as the hero
-Everything they do must help the hero
-Chances are they feel inadequate compared to the hero and the hero helps them overcome this.
-Their best scene is where they help the MC overcome self-doubt and/or some physical task.
-Their only purpose is that they’re funny.
-This character leaves to go on an adventure with the hero for no visible reason (their motivation is weak).
-Allies who meet the hero at the beginning of the book and yet immediately trust this stranger.
-An ally who “can’t”. They’re too weak, so it’s up to the hero.

Does your ally fit these things? Is your ally a comedic relief character, or the character that the hero must save from depression?

The most important question you can ask when it comes to the necessity of an ally is thus: “Why are you following the hero?”
If, even for an instance, you think the answer might be “because I the author need them to”, then something needs to change.

The ally is the hero of their own story.
They have a real life outside the main character’s goal.
This person has desires, dreams, and goals which are not identical in every way to the hero’s.
Don’t let them fall into a shadow they weren’t meant to be in.
If they must exist, it must be because they chose to aid the hero, to take on this quest despite their own goals.
That is a beautiful character.
That is sacrifice.
It’s a story worth telling, even if they aren’t the main character.

What about you? Does your Ally NEED to exist? Why? Leave a comment and share!


  1. That's funny...I usually have the opposite problem where my Ally is way too involved, and ahead of my Hero and constantly getting my Hero to /do something/.

    But yeah, I've seen (read) my share of useless Allies.
    Great post!

    1. Ehehe. Funnily enough, I'll be talking about that kind of Ally, too. So, I guess stay tuned! ;)