I love and hate writing “side-kicks.” These are the secondary characters who are useful and/or required for success in a novel. I love them because they give me a place to explore depths my protagonist doesn’t have or a sounding board for my protagonist to discuss aspects of the novel. I hate them because I struggle to make them “real people” in their own right.
I think Robin (of Batman & Robin) is sort of the perfect example of the “exposition bitch.” Robin is, from the Adam West to the 90’s cartoons, an idiot. Batman explains everything to him. I hate it. Robin’s biggest role is as the plucky kid who needs the hero to explain things -and really so the reader/viewer can get it. Now, I haven’t read these, but I am told by more knowledgable people that some of the comics portray Robin better. Is it really any surprise he eventually leaves the Batcave to become his own hero when Batman treats him so poorly?
Love interests are often portrayed this way too in film and novels. Especially in the “match-up game” – you know, the point where characters are beginning to pair up and you want to make sure no one feels left out? So you try to bring in a love interest for Person #3 and that love interest is either really dumb or basically never on screen or when they are on screen, they are ornamental.
Big Bang Theory started on this path when they brought in Bernadette, but they pretty quickly fleshed her out and I think they avoided it with Amy Farrah Fowler. They circled it again with Raj when they want to pair him off with someone – and they spend several episodes finding anyone. Why can’t he be happy being single or finding that he is content with his friendships? Why does he need to be paired off in a romantic relationship? It weakened the plots to try to force him into it and creates some seriously unhealthy images of why people get into relationships. The Wheel of Time does the same thing in some ways, but I think that Jordan – for all his other faults in the series – does a good question of asking why people get into romantic relationship and exploring different things working for different people.
I don’t have the answer for writing a good side-character/sidekick. It’s a question I ask when I write a “small” character. The handmaiden to the lady-protagonist always feels a little like a cheat to me. Of course the lady (with the education) has to explain more depth of politics to her (young & inexperienced) handmaiden. I want to be better at this one. I tear up my innkeeper-friends, love interests, and “childhood best friends” on a regular basis to make sure they are real people underneath their wrappers.