Yesterday, my family got two new puppies named Sven and Elsa. They’re brother and sister Border Collie/German Shepherd Mixes and naturally adorable. So, last night, when I was supposed to be thinking up a topic for today, all I had on my brain was puppies. They are after all, for all their fun, a lot of work. Since I couldn’t get dogs out of my head, I figured I might as well find a way to apply them to today’s post: animal companions in fiction.
We’ve all read stories involving animal companions. Sometimes, the story is all about the animal, like in Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller. Sometimes, the animal companion is merely the faithful steed of a hero, like Bella in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. Bella, for example, was never a major element of the story, but she endeared herself to many fans. Sometimes, the animals are great beasts with mighty powers as in Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series. And sometimes, they are as average as dirt, though still highly entertaining, just as in John Erickson’s Hank the Cowdog series. Whether it’s children’s fiction or great literary works, animal companions have a long tradition and have left a powerful print in fiction.
Their uses in fiction are sometimes obvious. Perhaps the story revolves around them and the conflict directly includes them. But in many other instances, animal companions serve more subtle purposes.
Revelation of Human Characters: Let’s face it, we all say things to our pets that we’d never dare say to our fellow man. And how we treat the animals in our lives says a lot about us as people. Fictional characters are no different. A pet or animal companion can reveal layers about your other characters. What are they really thinking that they reveal to the cat who they feed? What sort of person are they really when it comes to how they care for their bird or gryphon? What weaknesses or hidden strengths does the presence of an animal, fantastical or mundane, reveal in their lives?
Humor and Catastrophe: Let’s face another fact, pets make messes, get into mischief, and add humor to life. Just because dogs are like this doesn’t mean your character’s pet unicorn has to be different. Animals in a story can add much needed levity, and the catastrophes they bring, when done well, can highlight story elements or simply heighten tension or stakes.
Foreshadowing, Instinct, and Pointing the Way: Animals tend to be much better than us at sensing danger, whether or not a person is to be trusted, or any number of other things. If your hero’s dog, who is normally quite sweet, starts growling at the guy sitting on the park bench, it tips your readers off that they need to be concerned about the guy on the park bench. Animal companions can be an avenue for revealing and hinting to readers in ways that your heroes could never manage.
Adding Grandeur: Especially when animal companions come in fantastical form, they serve the purpose of add something beyond the norm to a story. It can be anything, purity of the unicorn, mighty strength of the gryphon, or unsettling savagery of the manticore. Animal companions expand setting in a dynamic way. They can make a story and its world that much more.
Mirroring Theme: If your story’s theme is about loyalty, a dog can help highlight this. Another type of animal can too, but dogs are renowned for their loyalty. Either way, consider your themes. How can an animal in the life of your protagonist highlight those themes?
Relatable: Most of us have owned a pet. All of us know someone who has. Animals are a part of everyday life, and therefore, they are something everyone can relate to. They’re an additional way for readers to connect with a story and its characters.
There are but a few ways animal companions play a part in stories. And then, there’s always one last reason: they’re cool.
What other uses to animal companions serve in stories? What are some of your favorite stories with animal companions?