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Of his chronicler Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes said: “Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”

Never one to waste words being nice, Holmes managed, in that comment, to both insult and praise Watson, his friend. Assistant. Aide-de-camp. Amanuensis. Sidekick.

In literary language, Watson was a deuteragonist. If that’s Greek to you, it’s because it is Greek. The playwright Aeschylus was the first, purportedly, to put a second actor on the stage (the fabled chorus being offstage.) That second actor—the deuteragonist—was usually a foil for the principal actor. Sometimes an antagonist. Sometimes the voice of conscience. Or reason. Or the delights of the refreshment stall.

The deuteragonist remains a popular voice in literature. A few examples pop into the brain pan when I consider them.

  • Jim, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Huck is the protagonist.)

  • Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings. (Protagonist: Frodo)

  • Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. (Batman/Bruce Wayne is the main character.)

  • All four traveling companions in The Wizard of Oz. (Protagonist: Dorothy)

  • Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean. (A warning that unless you plan it so, you, the writer, should be careful about a deuteragonist stealing the thunder from the protagonist who, in the case of TPOTC, is Will Turner. Or maybe Elizabeth Swann, but in either case, it’s Jack we remember.)

  • Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. (Harry is the main magicker.)

Thinking, now, of Emma Bloom, Jacob Portman’s teen sweetheart in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I recall that a deuteragonist can also be a love interest;

Or an animal, such as Pantelaimon (moth/martin/mouse/wildcat), Lyra’s daemon in The Golden Compass;

Or expendable, like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet;

Or dead, as is Bob, the talking skull and advisor in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books.

I like deuteragonists. I like reading them, and I love writing them. When I write one, I try to pull inspiration from life—not too hard, since I’ve had a couple sidekicks, myself. You know, ride-or-die chums who will back you up no matter how unhinged your plan for the night/year/decade is. My SOP is to introduce the deuteragonist at a moment of crisis.

“It’s fine,” Sooz said, “you had to kill him. I’ll help you with the body.”

I mean, you should be able to count on your sidekick to hold the light while you bury one measly corpse, right?

Because a deuteragonist in need, is a deuteragonist indeed.

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