January 20, 2021

Animal Companions

         On Sunday I was at the virtual Arisia convention, on a panel of writers talking about animal companions in writing.  Yes, everyone shared pictures of their dearly beloved pets and how they inspire us, but we also discussed a bit about the roles that animal companions play in a story, and how they can perform functions that humanoid characters may not be able to fulfil.  This is the part that was most interesting to me, and I’ve put together a list of the different roles I think these animal characters can have.  Since we’re talking about speculative fiction, the range of roles is even wider than it would be in “realistic” fiction, which makes everything so much more fun!
        • Companionship when a character is “alone,” providing them with someone to talk with and interact with, which allows the author to  show the character’s actions and thoughts in a more interesting and dynamic way.  One example might be Tock joining Milo in Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.
        • Marking or rewarding a character as having special qualities, such as wisdom, gentleness,  or bravery.  Examples are the birds and woodland animals that are tame to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, or Toothless befriending Hiccup in Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon (or the DreamWorks movie).  Oru’s companion Tibul in my Sleeping Legends Lie falls under this category, as well as Svarnil’s companion Fethilis  in Vision Revealed.
        • Symbolizing or embodying certain characteristics.  This is similar to the previous, but even more so.  Where above a character may earn the companionship of an animal through certain traits, here the animals themselves represent those traits.  Examples are Ursula’s nasty sidekick eels in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, or Aunt Marge’s dog Ripper in Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, as well as the daemons in Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
        • The familiar, which provides its human with additional abilities, such as seeing or getting into impossible areas, fetching or manipulating things, and so on.  Examples abound in video games, such as the bird companions in “Assassin’s Creed.”  Another possibility might be R2-D2’s role in “Star Wars.”
        • A subcategory of the familiar role is those pets/companions that specifically provide their humans with extra knowledge or wisdom.  There are many examples of this in fairy tales, including Puss-in-Boots, plus Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, and the cat Dream-of-Jade by Lloyd Alexander.
        • From there it’s a quick step to the role that animal companions can play in offering another perspective or second opinion on what our characters see and experience.  How “other” we want this perspective to be can run the whole gamut from “just a little quirky” to “totally alien being.”  Dorothy’s companion Billina in Baum’s Ozma of Oz often offers a dissenting opinion, while Dug in Pixar’s “Up” clearly thinks like a dog, not a dog-shaped human.
        • The quirkier perspectives of companions can then be one way to exemplify the role of pets as Comic Relief.  Of course, comic relief can also be provided by general mischievousness or straight-up slapstick.  A classic example of a comic pet is Old Mother Hubbard’s dog, and then there’s Sophie’s imp Iggy in Keeper of the Lost Cities by Messenger, not to mention a lot of classic Disney sidekicks.
        • On the opposite end of the writing spectrum is pet as Victim.  An author can kill a beloved companion animal as a way of demonstrating just how high the stakes are, just short of killing the human protagonists.  (Indeed, sometimes readers are even more upset about the deaths of the pets!)  I won’t give any examples in this category, lest I give spoilers!
        • Inciting Subject: on a purely practical level, companion animals are terrific at precipitating plot twists and action.  Toto serves this function on multiple occasions in Baum’s The (Wonderful) Wizard of Oz, as well as the classic movie.  There are also a number of books, including Arabel’s Raven by Aiken and the Clifford books by Bridwell, in which the shenanigans of the pets are the entire plot.  Polly’s cat Uber drives the plot on a couple of occasions in my Extraordinary Book of Doors.
        • Fauna generally are an important part of world-building in SFF, and the companion animals give us a chance to see even more clearly what sort of world it must be to have such creatures in it.  For example, the sulchym in my Return to Tchrkkusk help illustrate the special environment and forgotten powers of the Tchrkym.
        • Last but not least, there’s Wish-Fulfillment.  We love the companion animals in books because who could possibly not wish they had pet fire lizards of their own as in McCaffrey’s Pern books, or a witty tin spider like Astrophil in Rutkoski’s Kronos Chronicles, or a noble steed like Tsornin in McKinley’s The Blue Sword?  Or simply a dog or cat that can speak, as in many many stories, including my Kate and Sam Adventures?
        Of course any decent animal companion will play multiple roles throughout a story - perhaps even all of them.  In addition to marking Svarnil’s open-hearted wisdom, Fethilis also gives her someone non-humanoid to talk to, provides her with the ability to see events at a distance like a familiar, communicates non-verbally in an exploration of the “otherness” of a different mode of thought, and occasionally turns the direction of the plot by affecting the way others view each other because of her.  And for me, at least, it’s certainly wish-fulfillment to imagine having a wonderful companion like that!

[Pictures: Princess Aurora with birds, still from “Sleeping Beauty,” animation by Disney Studios, 1959;

“Why, Billina!” cried Dorothy; “Have you been fighting?” illustration by John R. Neill for Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1907 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

Menolly and fire lizards, cover art by Rowena Morrill for Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, 1986 edition (Image from A Pilgrim in Narnia).]

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