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.