Hero, Sidekick, Villain

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a classic trio of characters with his Sherlock stories: hero, sidekick, and villain. For example: Sherlock, Dr. Watson, and Moriarty.

I took a look at other stories to see how closely they fit Conan Doyle’s setup. These aren’t in any particular order and this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list — just off the top of my head.

Story Hero Sidekick Villain
Sherlock Sherlock Dr. John Watson Moriarty
Harry Potter Harry Ron, Hermione Voldemort
Merlin (v1) Merlin Arthur Morgana
Merlin (v2) Arthur Merlin Mordred
Fringe Peter/Olivia Walter, Astrid Walternate
Superman Superman Jimmy Olsen Lex Luthor
Batman Batman Robin The Joker
Doctor Who The Doctor [companion] The Master
Teen Wolf Scott McCall [his pack] [multiple]
Haven Audrey Nathan, Duke the Troubles
Chuck Chuck, Sarah Casey [multiple]
Back to the Future Marty Doc Brown Biff
Dresden Files Harry Murphy, [multiple] [multiple]
Roswell Max [his friends] FBI
Matilda Matilda (none) her parents, Trunchbull
The Sandlot Benny Smalls the Beast
Star Wars (original triology) Luke Han, Leia Darth Vader

In books, movies, and TV shows, we use different words to describe people with magic. Sometimes the words specify gender or if the person uses magic for good or evil. But the terms and their meanings are not consistent across different stories and fantasy worlds. I wanted to compare the dictionary definitions of witch, wizard, sorcerer/sorceress, and warlock to how they are used in a few fantasy worlds that I am familiar with.

Most common dictionary definitions:
witch – A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practice sorcery.
wizard – One who practices magic; a sorcerer or magician.
sorcerer – One who practices sorcery; a wizard.
sorceress – A woman who practices sorcery.
sorcery – Use of supernatural power over others through the assistance of spirits; witchcraft.
warlock – A male witch, sorcerer, wizard, or demon.

How these terms are used in fiction


In Merlin, the dragon Kilgharrah calls Merlin “young warlock.” Warlocks can sometimes be associated with dark power (see “demon” in the definition above), but the dragon never seems to think that Merlin might use his power for evil purposes. In Merlin’s world, then, “warlock” is synonymous with wizard or sorcerer (x). The prophecies call Merlin a “sorcerer,” and that is the general term used in the series for anyone who practices magic.

The Dresden Files

“Wizard” refers to a man or a woman with a substantial amount of magical talent. Sometimes “dark wizard” will be used for someone who uses magic for evil purposes. “Warlock” is the term for anyone who breaks any of the Seven Laws of Magic (x).

Harry Potter

“Witch” refers to a female and “wizard” refers to a male. In the Harry Potter series, “witch” and “wizard” do not carry with them a certain expectation of power or experience. Twelve year-olds studying at Hogwarts are witches and wizards and adults who work for the Ministry of Magic are witches and wizards too. “Warlock” usually denotes a person with high skill or achievement (x).

A Modern Witch

In this novel by Debora Geary, “Witch” refers to a male or female with any level of talent. No mention of any other terms for people with magical talent.

I like that writers use already-existing words for characters with magical talent, but at the same time, it can be confusing that these words do not have universal meanings. There’s another way of looking at this though: molding these terms to their specific worlds means that writers can form their own structures for how magical talent is defined in their stories.

The Dresden Files is an urban fantasy series written by Jim Butcher. The main character, Harry Dresden, is a wizard and private investigator. There are fifteen books in the series so far, but my first introduction to Harry Dresden was on TV.

The Sci Fi Channel ran 12 episodes of The Dresden Files in 2007, and then the series was cancelled. I really liked the TV show, and so then I got into the books. The books and the show aren’t exactly the same, but they are close enough that if you like the one, you’ll like the other.

The only thing that keeps tripping me up is Murphy. In the TV show, Valerie Cruz plays Murphy and she looks like this:

But in the novels, Murphy is short, blonde, and has blue eyes. More like this:

Valerie Cruz was cast as Murphy because of her “ability to effectively portray the character’s personality in spite of the difference in appearance” (x). She is a great actress and I like her portrayal of Murphy, so much that I keep imagining Cruz as Murphy while I’m reading the books, years after the TV show ended.

I’m reading Small Favor right now, and there’s a scene where Dresden and Murphy are talking in McAnally’s pub. I know I was picturing Valerie Cruz because there’s a mention of Murphy’s blue eyes and I stopped on that sentence. Right, book Murphy looks different. Blue eyes. Blonde hair. I can keep reading until another mention of her physical appearance makes me pause, but most of the time the Murphy in my head is the Murphy from TV because that’s where I first met the character.

Image sources: TV Murphy | Book (graphic novel) Murphy

In movies and TV shows, we can see what two characters are like when they’re together. It doesn’t matter if they’re siblings, friends, a romantic couple, or enemies. Their interactions are on the screen. They have dialogue and body language. We have a lot of information to help us figure out what their relationship is like.

Relationships can be more difficult to convey in novels because we don’t have all of those visual clues. The small details are in words, like the rest of the story, instead of in facial expressions and tone of voice. And yet, in the Dresden Files series, author Jim Butcher gives us a clear understanding of relationships between characters.

For example, take Harry Dresden and his brother Thomas. Going by the conversations Harry and Thomas have and the insight we gain from Harry’s point of view, we have a pretty good understanding of their relationship. But we gain an even better understanding during scenes when Thomas and Harry face a threat together. That’s when we see the high level of trust between Harry and Thomas.

I noticed this in White Night‘s fight scenes, but there are probably examples in earlier books too. Harry yells at Thomas to duck out of the way, and Thomas immediately drops to the ground. No hesitation and no doubt. Vice versa, Harry follows whatever instruction Thomas gives him. Communicating like that during dangerous situations works only with immediate responses, and immediate responses require a high level of trust. Otherwise, a delay on either Thomas’s or Harry’s part could mean death for one or both of them.

The way those moments are written, it feels natural that Harry and Thomas would trust each other like that, to the point that I didn’t realize their high level of trust until I read past those scenes.

Part of the reason for the delayed realization is that we don’t have visual cues. If I were watching that fight scene on a screen, I would have seen how quickly one man responded to the other, and it would have been obvious that they are used to fighting together and trust each other. But reading the scene in a book, we have to meet the author halfway. He gives us the details and we have to make connections to figure out what’s happening.