Some of you are cat people and some of you are dog people. Some of you don’t like either (you are sad, sad individuals). I am definitely an animal person. From hamsters to gerbils to dogs to cats to rabbits to Peking ducks, my pets have been varied and interesting. My current roommate and nemesis, Bella the Terrible, is a wonderful companion, mostly because her dark little bunny stare of doom is so utterly adorable.
Writing fiction often involves writing animals into the story. Sometimes, it is a necessity. Think about your typical fantasy novel. Horses are pretty much a given. You might put your characters on some other form of transportation if you are being excessively creative, but most likely they are riding horses.
Then, there are the hawks that your noble heroes ride with, their loyal companion hounds, the sardonic cats lounging throught the houses of magic-users, the dragons that lurk in caves (my favorite!), the savage wolves that plague the woods, and the various other creatures that come along to help or hinder the heroes and heroines along their journey.
We often put animals in our fantasy stories because they are necessary. However, we also add them because they are fun. They add color to the story. You know what I’m talking about:
- The half-wolf/half-cocker spaniel named after an ancient hero whose massive teeth can shred a highway robber or bring down a convenient deer for dinner. Of course, he’s also very good with children.
- The grumpy, fat horse who steals food and sleeps on his back.
- The enchanted bird companion who may or may not have once been a human but is now a sentient avian who carries messages and spies on the enemy
I could go on. Animal characters can be very entertaining. They can also be annoying and very cliché if the writer is not exceedingly cautious. Like the comic relief character that shows up for no apparent reason and cracks jokes at all the wrong moments, an animal side-kick can become an unwelcome addition to the story, and so if you choose to add one, do so with care.
Now, you could easily make the animal somehow integral to the plot. Perhaps the sentient avian companion was human once and part of the hero’s quest is to return the bird to its former shape. Just be sure that it is, in fact, a necessary, or at least believable, plot addition.
If you really only added the animal in as an interesting bit of variety to your story, take great care not to overdo your creature-character’s charm and adorableness or make your character spend too much time fawning, worrying, or thinking about said animal side-kick. Otherwise, your reader might just hope that a stray arrow will take down the sentient avian, providing plenty of delightful angst while also ridding the story of an annoying distraction from the main plot.
I freely admit that my love of animals gives me the predisposition for tossing in the random animal character into my story. Mikaela has her violently inclined horse Pride. My Dagger of Bane Story had Lord Dervish, the werepoodle. I’ve written two stories centered around Cupcake, the cat (or is he?), though he was a main character rather than an addition, so that probably doesn’t count. I just happen to love animals and I am constantly resisting the urge to flood my stories with fabulous pets and creatures.
Using animals in stories is not wrong. Rather, it is like so many things in writing: dangerous. An animal that is integrated well into a story will be amusing or interesting enough that the reader will enjoy the moments that it enters the picture and perhaps wonder about it when it is absent. A certain dragon in Stephanie’s story comes to mind, along with a squabbit in Brian’s.
Animals have their place in stories. Just don’t overdo it. We don’t need to read the Saga of Freddy the Fluffiest Rabbit’s Cutest Moments Ever when we are expecting to hear about Alphonso the Awesomest Hero’s Quest to Save the World.
Okay… so maybe we might want to hear more about Freddy because, come on, a cute, fluffy rabbit!!! But, for now, let Alphonso have his day and keep Freddy in the background. (Or you could have Alphonso eat Freddy because, you know, he’s starving and he had to and we would weep, my friends, weep! Thus, providing delightful angst and drama to the story.)
So, my question for you: What animals in fiction have you enjoyed as side-kicks to the heroes and what animals were, quite frankly, just annoyances? (PS – You can’t use Narnia creatures. They don’t count.)