Michael Allen was never the hero. He was always the sidekick.
While growing up, Allen, an author and critic on character development, always identified as the lackey or the sidekick. His friends had bigger personalities and their talents overshadowed his. He was their sidekick, their confidant and their right-hand man.
Over time, Allen grew into his own to become the hero.
“When I’m treated as the so-called ‘hero’ in certain circumstances. I can’t help but like that feeling," said Allen, who writes novels, such as "A River in the Ocean," which features sidekick characters.
With the Golden Globes yesterday, Sundance kicking off this week and the Oscars just around the corner, there's a lot of emphasis on the main characters and heroes of films. But some characters, like Mike Wazowski in last year's "Monsters University" and Anna from Disney's "Frozen" might be the main character, but aren't always the hero or leader. These types of characters, though, have just the same amount of impact on young people as the main heroes do, experts say.
But there’s a villainous side to following the sidekick, too. Some who choose to follow the hero face tremendous pressure from peers to fit in with the crowd, experts say. They’ll often cling to a the leader of a group to stay popular and avoid bullying, experts say.
“They say a successful person surrounds themselves with even more successful people,” said Fletcher Rhoden, an author and media critic, “and that certainly is the case with the sidekick.”
What sidekicks show
Derek Burrill, an associate professor at University of California, Riverside, said the idea of the sidekicks stems back to Greek theater and drama, where a chorus, or a group of actors, commented on the protagonist to the audience.
Sidekicks throughout history have been known to round out the main character, Burrill said. Heroes tend to be too strong, too perfect and too far out of reach, but a sidekick grounds them down and makes them relatable for the audience, he said. Main characters are mainly illogical and headstrong, while sidekicks are reasonable and logical — a relationship, Burrill said, commonly seen between Spock and Captain Kirk of the “Star Trek” franchise.
“You have this psychologically, totalized person between these two people,” Burrill said.
The best sidekicks, he said, were those were not only extensions of their leaders, but also “offer a twist, a contrast to better flesh out the overall character experience,” he said.
An example of this is Robin from the “Batman” comics, Rhoden said. He said Robin was more “impetuous, funnier, an upstart. This contrast made Batman more accessible to younger readers, which of course was the reason for creating the youthful sidekick in the first place.”
Bullied and always second best
Rosalind Wiseman, author and parenting educator, said boys and girls create social hierarchies from a young age by creating groups. There are many social types within the groups, like the funny one, or “The Entertainer,” as Wiseman put it. There’s often a loud and brash leader of the group, who has the most power, she said. And beside that leader, usually, there’s a sidekick.
“Sometimes an associate, no matter where you put him, will look for the person with the most social power and cling to him,” Wiseman said. “You literally think there’s things about your life that’ll be better if you’re connected to power,” she said.
Ideally, everyone wants to be the superhero, Wiseman said. But superheroes and leaders have to “open their mouth and confront people,” which the majority of young people don’t want to do, Wiseman said.
So instead, the hero rises up and takes the head of the social structure, leaving sidekicks to follow. Young people will stay loyal to their leader, and will even take the blame for something the leader committed as a sign of loyalty, Wiseman said.
“The difference is that superheroes are supposed to be championing the underdog, people who can’t speak for themselves, who can’t use their power to degrade other people which is very different from a person on a social structure who are looking to humiliate people for fun,” Wiseman said.
Burrill said that becoming that sidekick, or even favoring a sidekick instead of a hero, won’t necessarily have bad effects. He said the quality of life of someone who believes himself or herself to be similar to a sidekick all depends on which sidekick or superhero they choose to believe in.
“It’s what kind of sidekick they’re willing to be,” he said, “or what kind of vice president or what kind of assistant professor.”
Believing in the side
So how do young people decide on a role model?
The Barna Group, which provides research for church, nonprofit organizations and businesses, released a study that showed that for 26 percent of those ages 13 to 18, a strong role model cared for others, acted polite and courageous, and was fun to be around. For 22 percent of teens, a good role model is someone who they can emulate, the study said. About 13 percent of teenagers wanted someone that showed they could carry out their own goals, and 9 percent of teenagers wanted someone that overcame adversity.
“Young people, like most other Americans, choose their role models because those people are achievers and because they help teenagers feel better about themselves,” the study said.
And it's sidekicks, Rhoden said, that fit that mold the best.
“In general, the sidekick is the younger audience member's POV, and they must learn the lessons that young people must learn: Look before you leap — stop, look and listen — that kind of thing,” he said.
Rhoden said following in the footsteps of a sidekick is a better and more realistic step to take in life.
“We all can't be born Superman or the Fonz or Sherlock Holmes,” he said. “But we all can be Jimmy Olsen, Richie Cunningham or Dr. Watson.”
Many young people will fall for the hero and try to become the main character, but when they grow up, they accept being more like a sidekick, Burrill said.
“The superhero really represents the desire, our desires, to be larger than we are,” Burrill said. “While you may not be able to be a superhero,” he said, “what’s important is that you’re consistent and you’re reliable and you’re steadfast.”