Why have a sidekick? 4 reasons in 4 minutes

When Jeremy Marshall and I wrote Captain James Hook and the Curse of Peter Pan, we decided that James Hoodkins (the young Hook) should have someone he is responsible for during his adventures (tragedies?).  We did this for a few reasons, but I never thought to explain why sidekicks are so important until now.

First, a definition.  A sidekick is a secondary character who furthers the story.  Although this is an unequal relationship, the sidekick is not a mindless follower.  Sidekicks have goals, dreams, and personalities.

The lazy pick would have been to use Smee.  The two are often paired in cartoons and promotions.  We went a different way and used Billy Jukes.  In Barrie’s Peter Pan, Bill Jukes is a tattooed cutthroat whose past is rumored at best.  We took the seeds of that character and made him the son of a close family friend and the younger brother of James’s love interest, Emily.  When both children (James was 13 and Jukes was 11) were lost at sea and fell in with pirates, James had a reason to keep looking for a way home.

There are inherent advantages to including a sidekick.

READER IDENTIFICATION

When using a sidekick, readers have an opportunity to identify with him or her.  This gives an author a wider range of readership.  Some may have found James Hook cold and a little distant, but liked Billy Jukes’s more reckless behavior.

WAIT.  WHAT HAPPENED?

If a hero is alone and figures out a solution, then he just does what he needs to do and skips the explanation.  If that information is important for the reader to know, you need a second character to draw it out.  This is a classic setup and it worked well with Hook and Jukes.

OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVE

This is an advantage if you are writing from multiple perspectives.  Your protagonist can’t see everything.  They operate from a single point of view.   Writing from a sidekick’s POV is a great way to give new information to the reader that you want to hide from the hero and show how wonderful the hero is without the hero sounding arrogant.  We wrote CJH from one POV, but this is a great tool if you decide to use it.

COMPLEMENTARY BEHAVIORS

This is my favorite reason.  As athletic and strong as Billy Jukes was compared to the sickly James Hoodkins, he was two years younger and a far slower thinker than his genius friend.  This made for an interesting brain-and-brawn pairing.  James was the clear leader of the two and there was no problem that their combined skill set couldn’t overcome.

Knights have squires.

Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson.

Batman has Robin.

Sidekicks matter.

Cut Through Writing Myths

At the start of a school year, teachers experience a rush of excitement.  We also experience an avalanche of work that wasn’t there just a few days ago.  Schedules, standards, paperwork, student names, grading, lesson plans, paperwork, classroom setup, and paperwork drown out anything else going on in our lives.  It is a joy and I am thrilled to be in education.  I am also grateful for my short break from writing because it has given me a chance to look back on some really terrible common myths I found in most “how to” writing books.

Myths about Perspective and Point of View

Myth: Limit your point of view characters to three but never have only one.  Too many characters confuse the reader and having only one will lack depth.

My Truth:  Use however many perspectives it will take to tell your story.  Kevin Anderson’s Saga of the Seven Suns and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones have a dozen POV characters.  Jeff Lindsay wrote five Dexter novels from within his main character’s mind.  Side Note: You should always keep a single perspective within a scene or you WILL confuse a reader.

Myths about Grammar

Myth: You should always write using correct grammar.

My Truth:  Learn correct grammar and punctuation.  This way, when you need to write dialogue, dialect, or artful prose, you know what rules you are breaking.  Failing to learn doesn’t make your writing quirky or unique.  It makes you seem illiterate.

Myths about Exposition

Myth: Avoid exposition in the form of information dumps.

My Truth: Exposition is important.  Information dumps, like the opening paragraphs in a Star Wars movie, rarely work well.  If you find yourself explaining too much, you probably missed an opportunity to hint at your topic earlier in the story.  Go back and plant seeds in the first few chapters if you want a garden in the final scene.

Myths about Sequence

Myth: Always write in a logical progression of thought and avoid flashbacks.

My Truth: Tell this to the writers of the Highlander or Once Upon a Time TV series.  I know that television is a different medium, but good writing is good writing.  Whatever structure best fits your story is the one that you should use.

BOOKS WORTH READING

In the end, there are only a few good books on how to write well.  Stephen King’s On Writing is the most useful. Another worthy mention is: Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence, by Roz Morris. This is a great book for structure and manuscript resuscitation.

When is it a novel and when is it a short story?

Aside from the length of the work, there are many factors that separate a short story from a novel.

RIGHT FROM THE START

The first line of a short story should bring readers right into the action.    The opening of a novel has more to accomplish.  Even though the plot doesn’t have to be introduced in the first chapter, there are world-building tasks that normalize the setting, introduce characters, and establish tone.

CHARACTERS

There are fewer characters in a short story than in a novel.  In general, short stories are limited to one point of view with under ten people running around.  Since these characters populate a tight space, each one has a specific job to do and run the risk of becoming caricatures of their roles.  Novels can dedicate whole scenes about character development without pushing the plot along.

PLOT COMPLEXITY

Since length is the prime difference maker between short stories and novels, it is no surprise that the plot structure is affected.   Plot, much like characters and setting, have to be laser focused in a short story.  No detours.  No extensive red herrings.  At best, there is room for one or two good twists that are directly related to the advancing plot.  This is a blessing as much as it is a hindrance because it is as easy to stray too far from the plot in a novel as it is to be overly simplistic in a short story.

Using these touchstones, you can better gauge whether your idea is best told as a short story or as a novel.

The Tools of a Fiction Author in Three Minutes or Less

Every now and again, it is good to review the basics.  

Fiction writers have an advantage over authors of other mediums in that they have complete control over their stories.  Theater and television authors work with directors, actors, and producers, but the responsibility of total ownership means that a writer of fiction has to do the job of bringing the idea of the story to life. 

This is a short list of tools that the fiction author uses.

DIALOGUE is the act of having two or more characters speak to one another. It is the most easily recognized device because it is used in fiction, plays, movies, and television. A lot can be done with dialogue, but even more can be done to it.

DESCRIPTION, ACTION, THOUGHTS, and EXPOSITION are devices that playwrights and screenplay writers don’t have access to because these jobs are taken by the actors, directors, and producers I wrote about earlier.

DESCRIPTION is what an author uses to color a scene. This can be about the setting, the action, or a character’s thoughts. Without me advocating for the overuse of adverbs, description tells the reader whether a piece of dialogue was said casually, calmly, angrily, or giddily.

ACTION shows the reader what is happening. Remember, no one has to get punched in the face for it to be considered action. All movement is action and how it is written shows as much about a character’s mood and intentions as any dialogue could.

Character THOUGHTS establish perspective and orient the reader to the point of view with which you want them to identify. This helps make your lead characters more sympathetic, especially if they are difficult to like in the first place.

EXPOSITION tells the reader what is happening instead of showing them. This isn’t always best, but it works if there is a lot of information that a reader needs to know to understand the scene.

Armed with these basics, the fiction author shapes every aspect of his or her story.

Stronger Story Openings in Under Thirty Seconds

Your opening is an introduction to who you are as a writer. The first 100 words are precious real estate that set the tone for the rest of the story. Reader engagement is critical and here is the quickest pathway to achieve that goal.

RIGHT FROM THE START

Story beginnings have to accomplish several goals. When in doubt, remember that information is far more important to the audience than action. Readers need to know a character’s sex, age, occupation, handicaps, and reason for being this story’s protagonist. Setting is needed for the sake of orienting a reader to the surroundings and time period. There also should be a suggestion of what the overall problem is in the story. All of these things don’t need to be explained fully, but there should be a sense of understanding.

SENSORY IMAGERY

Readers want to feel swept away into a story and this is one of the simplest ways to do it. I am a visual person and force myself to use auditory, tactile, and olfactory details. Use as many of the senses as are fitting to the scene.

BE DIRECT

Strong nouns and verbs are better than a dozen adjectives and adverbs. This is a standing piece of advice, but it is even more important when working within the first 100 words. A “construction worker” brings more of an image to mind than a “man” does. When that worker steps into a kitchen, a far clearer picture is made than when a man walks into a room.

Readers don’t always judge a book by its cover, but most will judge a story by its first 100 words.

How Important is Theme?

Is theme important or are we just looking to be entertained?

There are two philosophies about reading and writing when it comes to theme.  Some feel that the point of reading is to be entertained.  Others believe the purpose of writing is to move the reader and, if there is no theme to a story, then it is a waste of time.  

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

There is something to be said for the writer whose only wish is to entertain.   A good time can be found anywhere.  Movies, television, and Internet memes are all over our devices.  People will buy any type of crime, fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, thriller, horror, and romance series you can come up with, so why not cash in?  It isn’t noise, it’s a living.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THEME

Theme is the controlling idea behind a story.  It is more than simply the main idea or the lesson to be learned, theme is the part of a story that makes you feel or moves you emotionally.  The consideration of theme is what separates fiction from literature.  

A QUESTION OF AUDIENCE

The main point I would like to raise in this discussion is about who the reader is for a particular work.  Deciding that is the first step any writer needs to make before putting a single word on paper (or processor). Since the weight of theme is based on preference, an educated reader should know the type of book they pick up before they read it and a savvy writer should figure out if their reader is interested in Mario Puzo or Michael Bay.  

When is it okay to change an existing work?

This week, I received an Amazon “Kindle Quality Notice.”  It stated that Captain James Hook and the Curse of Peter Pan had internal errors in which “at least one” reader reported.  The errors weren’t related to formatting or appropriateness in content.  It was about an alleged typo.   Now, to be fair, some of my readers have found keystroke mistakes before and their input is always welcome.  Still, a man is innocent until proven guilty, so I investigated.  

DISCOVERY

The Kindle Quality Notice stated: There are typos in your book. You can see examples of this error at the following location(s): Kindle location: 577; Error description: “I led.” should be “I lied.”

This seemed like an open and shut case until I opened the document and read the whole section.  It is at the start of Chapter 8, when Peter meets James for the second time.

“I’m Peter Pan,” the child said proudly. He was standing on the mast as if it were the floorboards of the deck. I had seen him fly before and although this was nothing new, I was still amazed.

“I’m James,” I told him. It didn’t bother me that I had to reintroduce myself. “We’ve met before.” His blank expression told me of his genuine surprise that we knew each other. “We played weeks ago in my room in Port Royal.”

“Oh,” was all he said, as if bored already. I decided to retell one of the adventures in my literature books as if it were one of ours.

“Did I say my room?” I led. “I meant we played in a magical forest.” His head turned and bent to the side with interest. “You and I had a jolly time robbing wealthy carriages and saving England from the evil prince and his sheriff.” His eyes burst with excitement as I retold the whole adventure.

This wasn’t a typo.  Although “lied” would fit, I purposely chose “led” because young Hook leads Peter in the conversation.  Looking  back, there are other things I would love to change about my writer’s voice from that time, but that word isn’t wrong.  The question is whether it is distracting.

WORD CHOICE

The problem develops from one of an alleged typo to one about a word choice.   James leads Peter in this conversation, but do enough people read it that way or do they see that word as an oddity?  If it gets in the way of the flow of the story, then it doesn’t serve its purpose and it doesn’t belong.  However, the story is nearly one year old and this is a change that is not necessary.  The Artist in me is offended a the idea of making an unneeded change to my work.  The part of me that wants to sell books is more eager to appease any request.  What to do?

VERDICT

I decided to keep it as it is.  If this were a genuine typo, I’d change it, but the section above is narrated by an older James Hook and his voice has to show through.   He would have no problem saying that he “led” his one-time friend this way and that, not as a boast, but to demonstrate his superiority without expressly saying so.  That is good form, after all.