Does Your Detective Need a Sidekick? Let’s Confer.

Abi Wurdeman
January 8, 2024
Does Your Detective Need a Sidekick? Let’s Confer.

Probably. That’s the short answer.

I’m not willing to say a definitive yes. It’s your story, after all. For all I know, it might be a stronger choice to make your detective a lone wolf, seeking justice in isolation, just them against the world.

But the fact is, sidekicks are extremely common in mystery novels, and a lot of detective fiction would flounder without them.

Sidekick characters heighten tension, humanize the detective, and enhance the puzzle—you know, things that are massively important in crime fiction. 

Not to mention, it’s usually way more fun to watch the back-and-forth of the protagonist and their partner than to follow the inner monologue of a solo sleuth for two hundred pages.  

All this to say, odds are good that your story would benefit from a sidekick, but only you can answer that question for sure.

What I can do is help you think through this character’s potential role in your story. We’ll talk about:

  • The purpose of sidekicks in the mystery genre
  • The advantages of giving your detective an assistant
  • Types of sidekicks in mystery novels
  • Tips for creating this character
  • Famous examples of well-written sidekicks
  • Challenges to look out for

Let’s start, as we always do, with the big picture.

The Role of Sidekicks in Detective Fiction

A detective sidekick in a suit and tie holds a cup of coffee and leans against a two-way mirror.

In the interest of clarity, I’d like to reiterate that we’re talking about mystery sidekicks right now. Many of these concepts apply to other genres, but for a more general discussion on this particular character, I suggest checking out this article.

Now, when most people think of the sidekick in a mystery novel, they immediately envision Sherlock Holmes’ assistant, Dr. John Watson. 

And, because this character is most widely known to modern audiences through parody (exceptions for those who’ve watched any of the new Holmes-inspired movies and shows), Watson has a reputation for just asking questions that give Holmes an excuse to make a big, loud deal about how elementary stuff is.

There’s a bit more to John Watson than that, and a lot more to crime fiction sidekicks.

Yes, this character exists to highlight your protagonist’s undeniable genius. But they also make up for the detective’s weaknesses, offer a unique perspective, give the audience a voice in the story, and serve as a foil for your sleuth.

A foil is a character whose own traits highlight the opposite traits in the protagonist. 

For example, Watson is dependable, has relatable emotional responses to what’s going on around him, and is reasonably smart without being exceptionally intelligent. All these qualities cast a spotlight on Sherlock Holmes’ unpredictability, calculating nature, and utter brilliance.

So that’s the wide-angle view. In a moment, we’ll take a look at the specific ways you can use your mystery sidekick to write a deeper, smarter, more dazzling whodunit.

But first, I want to make sure we’re all on the same page about something:

What We Mean by “Sidekick”

Blue question mark on pink background.

It seems like a term with an obvious definition, but if you read or watch a lot of mysteries, you know the lines can get blurry here.

Can your protagonist’s partner be a sidekick if they hold the same ranking on the police force? Is the hacker that your detective calls once or twice for help technically a sidekick?

For the purposes of this article, we’re defining “sidekick” as a secondary character who works closely and regularly with the protagonist, whether it’s in the capacity of a professional partner, assistant, friend, or even boss.

The protagonist is the hero(ine) of the story, regardless of how they rank in their own universe. They get the spotlight. The person who helps them shine is their Watson.

Now that we’ve established that, we can discuss…

The Advantages of Having a Sidekick in a Mystery Novel

A thumbs-up sticking out from among a bunch of tree leaves.

Your main character isn’t the only one who stands to benefit from the addition of a sidekick. The detective’s number one ally can also help you tell a gripping tale that seizes the reader’s attention and holds it all the way until “the end.”

Here are some of the biggest advantages of including this character in your mystery:

Offer a Different Perspective

A hand holds a glass ball that reflects the image of a city upside down.

Remember that thing about sidekicks serving as foils for the protagonist because they have opposite traits?

Those opposite traits mean they also bring a unique perspective to the investigation. Their point of view helps the detective solve the crime by sparking ideas that the sleuth would never have thought of on their own.

Now, here’s where it gets really cool:

Most sidekicks serve as a sort of proxy for the reader within the story. I’ll explain that more in a bit, but the basic idea is that this character is the one most readers will relate to

So it’s especially delightful for your audience when the sidekick’s expertise as a Common Person helps the supersleuth get past the barriers of their own genius.

Create Tension

Two people pull on opposite sides of the same rope.

Despite popular belief, the Great Detective’s assistant doesn’t exist just to marvel at their every theory. This character can and should rock the boat from time to time.

They might try to prevent your main character from following a foolhardy plan. They could get sick of always having to follow orders and decide to do things their own way. 

Maybe there’s even personal friction between these characters. That can happen in any sleuth/sidekick relationship, but it’s especially common when your detective’s ally is also an old friend or romantic partner.

Provide Camaraderie

One person leans on the shoulder of another.

No one understands the unique challenges your main character faces quite like their right-hand person. 

The sidekick understands the stress of an investigation better than anyone in your protagonist’s personal life. And they probably care about your detective’s personal life more than anyone involved in the investigation.

When everyone else sees your detective as just a cop or squeaky wheel or the unreliable parent, your sidekick sees the whole, struggling human being. Sometimes this character is the only person your protagonist can confide in.

Inspire Character Growth

Crime fiction protagonists are famously resistant to growth. 

Some of this is due to artistic necessity; if you plan to write an entire series, you can’t give your main character a major transformation in a single book or your readers won’t be able to return to the detective they’ve come to love.

That’s where sidekicks come in. They often have their own mini-arcs and are free to get married, have babies, or switch jobs without utterly obliterating the spine of a series. This gives readers something to connect to on a personal level, beyond all that crime business.

right-handAnd because the sidekick knows the detective so well, they’re the best person to nudge your main character towards growth, whether it’s a series-long arc or a faster transformation in a standalone novel.

Add Humor

A person holds a magnifying glass in front of their smiling mouth.

A sidekick can also be good for comic relief. Sometimes they’re just a funny character in their own right, like the excessively cheerful Joyce, rash Ron, and overly meticulous Ibrahim in the Thursday Murder Club series. 

Or the sidekick might add to the comedy the detective already brings, like the bantering and bickering between Shawn and Gus in Psych.

Speak for the Audience

Finally, as I mentioned before, this character often serves as the eyes and ears for the reader. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the sidekick to serve as narrator, like Kazumi Ishioka in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders.

But even if the sidekick isn’t directly telling the tale, they’re still the one watching the sleuth’s brilliance with curious and sometimes confused eyes. They ask the questions the reader would ask. 

A sidekick is one of the most effective ways to invite your audience to join the investigation. And as we know, that’s what this genre is all about.

Types of Detective Sidekicks

A diverse group of people sit in a row on a wall.

Sidekicks appear in many forms. What follows is not an exhaustive list but a quick rundown of some of the most popular types… just a little something to get those wheels turning.

The Watson

Oh yes, Sherlock Holmes’ right-hand man is such an iconic sidekick that there’s a whole character type named after him.

Like John Watson himself, this person is clever enough in their own right but has strong Average Joe/Jane energy when standing beside the blinding genius of your main character. A Watson asks a lot of questions, giving the detective an excuse to explain their reasoning for the reader.

And while this character is often a loyal assistant or just “along for the ride,” rather than being a true professional partner, their questions and perspectives often help the sleuth see the clues in a new light and ultimately solve the crime.   

The Unsung Genius

A person with binary code projected on their face.

You’re most likely to see this sidekick in kids’ books or comedic mysteries. In fact, Inspector Gadget’s Penny is the first example that springs to mind. Hermione Granger is another one.

This character plays second fiddle to the (sometimes bumbling) star detective—usually happily—even as it’s often their insight and clever problem-solving that saves the day.

The Expert

In some crime fiction novels, the sleuth’s closest collaborator is an expert they regularly consult and grow to trust above anyone else. This could be a hacker, a coroner, or even a psychic.

The trick is to figure out what makes this person a full-blown sidekick and not just a trusted colleague. Something in the detective/expert relationship should motivate the detective to deliberately involve them in the investigation and inspire the sidekick to invest in the case well beyond their professional obligation.

The Unwanted Sidekick 

A person putting up their hand to dismiss another person who's trying to talk to them.

Here’s a fun one. This begins as a one-sided relationship. The sidekick appoints themselves as helper, nevermind the fact that the detective wants nothing to do with them.

This is usually done to comedic effect, and we all know how it ends, right? The unwanted sidekick proves their worth and before long, conducting an investigation without them becomes unthinkable for the main character (even if they continue to insist otherwise).

That said, it is possible to write a character like this in a darker, more serious mystery novel. In The Searcher, Cal’s unwanted sidekick is a vulnerable kid whose willingness to suffer for answers forces Cal to take on the case only to keep the child safe.

Tips for Creating a Detective Sidekick

A person writes in a notebook.

Whatever type of sidekick you craft for your mystery novel, these tips will help you create a character readers will love and remember.

Loyalty is Everything

A great sidekick knows the protagonist’s flaws better than anyone, and yet they’re the last to give up on them. Beautiful stuff.

That said, it’s fine—even encouraged—for there to be some conflict between your sleuth and their assistant. Heck, your sidekick might even bail for a few chapters. But ultimately, they believe in the main character and their mission too much to stay away.

Create a Complementary Dynamic

A balanced scale.

While sidekicks are assumed to be less impressive than the detectives they support, they should bring some unique strength to the table. More specifically, they should fill a gap in your protagonist’s skill set, ensuring that the sleuth is more effective with this character at their side.

Make Them a True Friend

These two people have joined forces to solve a crime, but it’s important that their connection isn’t only about their ability to collaborate.

Flesh out the personal relationship between sleuth and sidekick. How do their personalities complement and challenge one another? What emotional gaps do they fill in each other’s lives?

Think About Relatability

How might this character reflect who your reader would be in this situation?

It’s not important that your sidekick resembles your audience in terms of lifestyle or personality. But consider how they can bring a more grounded perspective to this extraordinary situation.

Maybe they’re afraid when your sleuth is foolhardy. Or they have to demand that your detective slow down and explain themselves.

Examples of Some of the Best Sidekicks in Literature

A stack of open books.

Juanell Dodson, IQ Series

For an example of a clever and modern twist on the old Holmes/Watson dynamic, check out this guy.

Dodson is a scheming, fast-talking hustler, but he fills all the requirements of a Watson: loyalty, an Average Joe perspective, and admiration for the protagonist’s stunning powers of deduction.

Joyce Meadowcroft, The Thursday Murder Club Series

Technically, all members of the Thursday Murder Club investigate as a team, but as a retired MI5 agent, Elizabeth is clearly the ringleader and caller of shots. Her three senior sidekicks are all brilliantly written, but her closest crony (and my all-time favorite mystery character) is a great example to study.

Joyce’s brilliance is easy to miss behind her infinitely cheerful and easily distracted personality. But she often sees things Elizabeth misses and supports her in ways the former secret agent isn’t even aware of.

Sally Kimball, Encyclopedia Brown Series

Sally is the cleanest, clearest example of a sidekick who brings complementary strengths to the investigation. Her athleticism makes her a formidable bodyguard for the brainy Encyclopedia, in addition to being his business partner and friend. 

The Challenges of Writing a Crime-Solving Duo

A person holds their glasses and rubs their temples.

Before I send you on your way to create the John Watson to your own Sherlock Holmes, I’d like to give you a quick heads-up about a few missteps that are easy to make when writing a sidekick. Things like:

An Unbalanced Focus

When it comes to writing characters who aren’t the focus of the narrative, we writers tend to feel freer to play around. We get extra creative and even a little funnier. It’s no wonder some of the most beloved characters in literature are secondary players.

So when it comes to your sidekick, it’s chill if they occasionally steal the scene. Just don’t let them steal the whole book. Remember that your sleuth is still the central hero(ine).

An Irrelevant Sidekick

Like all your characters, your sidekick should feel like a natural part of the story. Rather than creating them simply to deliver a few laughs or ask key questions, ask yourself why they belong in this world and plot line.

How does their presence in the protagonist’s life reflect where your detective is in their career? Do they have their own subplot that ties in with the greater theme? Is the crime they’re trying to solve personal for them in some way?

A glowing stick figure sits on a couch.

A Caricature of a Sidekick

Remember that “sidekick” is simply the role this person plays in the story. It’s not their entire personality. Just like all your other secondary characters, this one demands depth and three-dimensional development.

For help with this, browse the eight billion* free articles on character available in DabbleU.

*Count is approximate.

So, to Answer Your Question…

A person rests their chin on their head and looks up and to the side, thinking.d

Just kidding. It’s still up to you whether a sidekick belongs in your mystery. But hopefully at this point you have a clearer understanding of what this character can add to your story. 

In fact, I’d say sidekicks are so common in this genre and have so much to offer the narrative that maybe the better question is, “What do you gain by not having a sidekick?”

Is there a benefit to allowing your sleuth to operate as a lone wolf? Would the absence of an assistant help draw out a theme or improve the plot in some way?

If you don’t have a good reason to let your detective solve the crime entirely on their own, then give them a pal.

However you decide to tackle the characters that make up your whodunit, remember that Dabble offers great tools for dreaming up the whole cast. You can customize character profiles, track their arcs on a Plot Grid, and more. 

And oh, look! Here’s a guide and template to make the job even easier.

Not a Dabbler, yet? No problem! Click this link for a 14-day free trial, no credit card required.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.