Remember Donkey from the Shrek movies? Of course you do—who could forget his love affair with the dragon, his body-swapping with Puss, or his “tiny mutant babies”? Sure, Shrek is the hero of these movies, and it is his actions (and those of the various villians, including Lord Farquaad and Prince Charming) that move the plot along. But Donkey serves another function in these movies; he is the perfect example of the sidekick as comic relief. His primary purpose is to relieve the tension created between the hero and villain. Although he may stray into the occasional thoughtful or insightful conversation, his reason to exist is to brighten up the tone of the narrative.
Sidekicks do, however, serve in other positions than comic relief. They are partnered with their hero, providing many needed services. Throughout fiction there are hundreds, if not thousands of famous hero/sidekick pairings: Donkey and Shrek, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, and Batman and Robin are just a few examples. In each of these pairings, the sidekick helps out the hero. As Bronwyn Williams explains, “The sidekick tends to be the more passive, literate character who fulfills the groundwork in order to free his or her hero to perform the action.” Sidekicks vary in power and in abilities, but they share many common characteristics and are always beneath the hero.
I would like to propose that the role of the sidekick is not, however, the only role that the friend of the hero may play. There is something more than comic relief with sporadic insight available to characters who support the hero and develop the plot. The sidekick has its place, but in most fantasy literature this role should more truly be called the second, as this character is often a hero in his or her own right.