Character Profiles: The Expository Sidekick

“Oh,” he said, with emphasis. “Oh – you don’t think it necessary; then,” and he added the words with great clearness and deliberation, “then, Mr. Ellis Shorter, I can only say that I would like to see you without your whiskers.”

And at these words I also rose to my feet, for the great tragedy of my life had come. Splendid and exciting as life was in continued contact with an intellect like Basil’s, I had always the feeling that that splendour and excitement were on the borderland of sanity. He lived perpetually near the vision of the reason of things which makes men lose their reason. And I felt of his insanity as men feel of the death of friends with heart disease. It might come anywhere, in a field, in a hansom cab, looking at a sunset, smoking a cigarette. At the very moment of delivering a judgment for the salvation of a fellow creature, Basil Grant had gone mad.

Your whiskers,” he cried, advancing with blazing eyes. “Give me your whiskers. And your bald head.”

The Club of Queer Trades, by G. K. Chesterton

His name was Swinburne, but his friends called him the Cherub. This, he said, was due to the “roseate and youthful appearance I presented in my declining years. I only hope the spirits in the better world have as good dinners as I have.”

And yet he was a man who had odd adventures, and had them regularly. He went to strange places in London, and to strange places outside it. One dark evening he climbed halfway up a tree in a deserted heath, for reasons he never did know. He followed strangers, and chased strangers, and occasionally pinned them to the ground.

There are many complex explanations for these actions, and a single simple one. Swinburne did all these things because he was around Basil Grant. Basil lived under the suspicion of being mad, and the world seemed to go mad around him. So his friend Swinburne passed through tale after tale of The Club of Queer Trades, a puzzled narrator of puzzling events.

He was an Expository Sidekick. Although the whole story is told through his “I”, he is not the subject – an unusual thing. Expository Sidekicks are a rare specimen. Generally they come paired with an Incomprehensible Genius, the real star. Let the sad truth be told: An Expository Sidekick is a character created as a literary device; he is a way to tell the story.

The most famous Expository Sidekick is undoubtedly Dr. Watson. He is, unlike Sherlock Holmes, a fairly normal person. As such, he performs two vital services for the story.

In the first place, he – like Swinburne – walks through the story going, What? This is what the reader feels and is meant to feel. It is helpful to have a character who feels the same. It makes the reader’s confusion about what is happening less a reaction to the story and more a participation in it. And then, on the reader’s behalf, Watson (and Swinburne) will demand – and get – an explanation.

In the second place, Dr. Watson is like every Expository Sidekick in that he can narrate and do it well. The Incomprehensible Genius – Holmes or Basil Grant – is not really fit to be a viewpoint character. His thought processes are in essence foreign. Sherlock Holmes and Basil Grant solve mysteries, but they are mysteries themselves. It would be hard, if the story related their thoughts directly, to preserve how incredible their minds are – let alone how mysterious. The Expository Sidekick is created to be the filter, witness to the geniuses and chronicler of them.

The Expository Sidekick is not usually complete without the Incomprehensible Genius – but far, far less is the Incomprehensible Genius complete without the Expository Sidekick. In this, too, the last shall be first, that though the Expository Sidekicks are more forgettable, they are utterly indispensable.