The most difficult part about writing this blog post has been keeping it beneath an insane length. I wanted a little fun this week and nothing is more fun than animal companions (sidekicks), especially in fantasy where you can really play with the concept.
I’m close to finishing the draft for Following the Essence Stone, Ametha possessing the ability to communicate with animals once she’s learned their song. She’s adopted a gray Cairn Terrier and is mesmerized by a certain roan unicorn.
I use the animal companion a lot, but not in all my novels. In Torment Surfacing, the nature of the action didn’t lend itself well to having one. In the Riparia prequel, Exhuming Truths, one character cherishes his horse, Eyyse, but has a teen assistant who’s often present. The other main character … her later arc demands she not have one in the prequel.
Animal companions began with Riparia’s Bk1, Trust in the Forgotten, and her bay mare, Doppla. On page one, she finds a body in the street…
Crouched, she sighed. “Who were you, sir? You deserved better than to be discarded in the street. I know that.” She ran a hand down the side of her face. What did she know about Practitioners beyond fireballs and cruelty? “My word, Doppla, Practitioners are never so far north.”
Doppla snorted. Odd how it summed up the situation.
I write in Deep 3rd (Close 3rd) and a critical advantage of a companion creature is giving the protagonist someone to talk to. The nature of the feedback varies, of course, but it’s always invaluable since it saves the protagonist from becoming trapped in their head. Instead, when a character is alone for long stretches, it offers the opportunity for interaction.
Oh, but that’s just the beginning, and over time I’ve realized how else a companion can serve a story.
That first novel enabled Riparia to escape circular reasoning and work out problems while talking to Doppla (not to mention calming her fears). A simple snort, whiney, toss of the head, or silence was often enough to cause Riparia to consider a different perspective.
In Bk2, A River in Each Hand, bigger possibilities emerged. The first was Sorceress Crimson’s raven, Mazatta, who has the power of limited speech (in real life, raven’s can mimmic speech and are technically songbirds). Evil, Crimson possesses a touch of humanity that she tries to hide, but that Mazatta often brings out, even when she’s threatens…
Flipping her curly, mahogany locks over her shoulder, they settled against her back and brushed her waist. She stretched out her left arm and the raven settled on it. “Have you no sense of time?”
Obsidian eyes mirroring her own reflected her pale skin. “Mazatta loves Crimson.”
A half smile formed. “You’re a sly bird. How fortunate for you that you were a most exquisite gift from Uncle.”
“And you’re quite the charmer today.”
I so loved Mazatta that his role grew beyond his sly manipulations to escape her displeasure. Knowing she always had his back, he expanded his sarcasm to others, but always in just a few words. He also offered insights about her that she refused to recognize.
This led to adding another, and unexpected, companion for Riparia late in the same novel. Non-speaking, the new member of Riparia’s family was more mobile—and deadly. It also foreshadowed Riparia’s growing confidence. I’d love to share more, but it’s a spoiler.
When I drafted Protecting the Pneuma Key I brought together all I’d learned about companion creatures and expanded on it. With the exception of a few supporters, Zephtasha was a witch on probation, an outcast with a big heart. I invented rylls and they thrived…
Hat in hand, he studied the rylls. Did he believe the cottage an insane asylum? His floundering brows confirmed he did. “They wear clothes?”
“They have names.” She flinched at her own sharp tone. “You shouldn’t know their names, I suppose. The jackets are so the children can tell them apart. The trained eye, though, would recognize that, for instance, Silver’s fur is so light as to be a soft gray. There’s also more red in Cerise’s fur.”
He tilted his head a few degrees to the side and peered at her. “You’re a different kind of witch, aren’t you?”
“I’m not a witch at all.” She extended her left arm to expose the shackle.
“All right, fair enough. You’re still unconventional. Most witches, or former witches, have a single familiar. You have an entire family. Too, you’ve achieved a measure of success while on probation and have done so in unconventional ways.”
What makes Pneuma Key truly unique is that each of her five rylls (think tree-climbing beavers without the long tails) takes on a side of her personality. It goes farther than that, though. They also expose those parts of her that she tries to hide. Likewise, each of the rylls is, at some point, reflected in other characters. It makes for fascinating parallels, most of which I hadn’t even planned.
Needless to say, the rylls are her support system, but also the greatest source of embarrassment for her. For someone who seldom has it together, she’s undermined by her most beloved companions at every turn when she’s trying to downplay her anxieties.
Too, in another quirk that wasn’t planned, her smallest companions, the rylls, are more like equals. Meanwhile, her largest are more like her children. In each case, those animals are bigger than she is.
In many ways, I went the opposite direction when I drafted Case of the Deadly Stroll. The nature of the plot didn’t lend itself well to lots of animals (it’s fantasy noir). Instead, Talma Loyal, the woman who isn’t a cat person ends up with one, a large, bushy Barska cat, Cinder. It wasn’t intended (is it ever?), but Cinder manages to fill the role of all five rylls in her own way.
Talma comes packed with a lot of emotional baggage owing to unimaginable trauma and a healthy dose of guilt. She also possesses far too much cat-like curiosity for her own good. One of her occupations is as one of the earliest (and by far most talented) crimes scene photographers, which means interactions with abrasive Chief Flint…
Laughter erupted outside the office, the sound of it an approaching wave. A moment later, Cinder strolled into the office, her tail held high, and jumped on her lap.
Oh, that wasn’t going to go over well.
If the cigar had been in Flint’s mouth when Cinder walked in he’d have choked on it. “Rhit, who let a damned cat in the station?”
Oh yes, not at all well. “Ah, yes, you see, she’s figured out how to open the door on the roadster. She must have been concerned about me, sir.”
That cat is yours?”
Kards spoke up. “It’s the cat from the last Amputator case. The first one Miss Loyal photographed.”
Flint turned on her. “You’re living with a dead man’s cat?”
She held up a finger for empahsis. “Woman’s.”
“That victim was a woman.”
“Damn it, Loyal, I don’t care. There aren’t supposed to be any cats or other animals in the station.”
“Well, sir, I don’t think she’s aware of that fact.”
“Of course she isn’t. Damn it, it’s a cat. I was talking to you, Loyal.”
“Yes. Right. That makes sense.”
Kards placed a hand over his eyes. It was an indication that her conversations with Chief Flint went as bad as she imagined they did.
I could go on all day with Cinder scenes, yet she doesn’t possess a single magical ability. In many ways, Cinder is a culmination of all the animals that came before her. She does a lot while doing little. She’s a sounding board for Talma, and a comfort when she needs it. She’s a reflection of who Talma is, and who she could be. She’s also representative of many other characters. There are even running gags involving her. Cinder always escaping the roadster. Passengers having to hold her in the two-seater motorcar. Her silent confrontations with certain characters.
In the end, Cinder is often comic relief, but she’s also emotional comfort for someone who’s damaged and a means of introduction for someone who struggles in social situations.
It should go without saying in one of my posts, but each of my companion creatures has a real purpose in each novel they appear in. A purpose far beyond being in the background or serving as a prop.