Companions and sidekicks in stories are a cliche/trend that, in my personal opinion, should never die off. There’s something about a cute widdle animal that makes you feel very warm inside, and it’s quite easy to character build around these creatures too. It shows your reader the morality of your protagonist or antagonist. Is there a ‘too far’ for your antagonist, for example? Will they refuse to hurt that companion?
A famous example of the animal companion use is of those we see in Disney movies, especially in regard to princesses. I think my favorite companion was a little dragon known as Mushu from Mulan. He has so much spunk, and while he leads Mulan to quite a bit of trouble, in the end shows that he truly does care for the protagonist and wants her to succeed.
Now, I read the first Lord of the Rings novel a couple summers ago, and I distinctly remember a pony known as “Bill” that the hobbit Sam grew greatly attached to. Sam took such good care of the pony, which showed me how compassionate he was for animals. This in turn got me, the reader, more attached to Sam, who became one of my all time favorite characters in that series. Speaking of which, I really need to return to reading that series again sometime. I was quite sad not to see Bill’s story well represented in the movie, not going to lie.
Anyway, I think it’s a great idea to include animal companions in a story as a great way to character build. In my first book, I include two very key characters–snakes, Boomey and Copper, of whom have pretty much raised my protagonist Sambuca Viper. Now, she had no idea she was a half-dragon in the beginning of the story, but she did have the feeling that she wasn’t entirely human. The fact that she could communicate with these snakes said a lot.
Of course, they’re no corn snakes, though at one point Sam claims they are to a strange gentleman at the time. Copper is a Copperhead (creative, I know) and Boomey is a…wait for it…. Boomslang snake. I know, some of the names I come up with are so original! But anyway, they’re huge catalysts for much of what happens in the beginning of the story.
But what about harming or even killing the animal companion? If you want your reader to feel the fury of thousands of suns for the antagonist that does that, you can most certainly do so. How do you feel in your favorite movie when an evil person kills off an innocent animal? Surely very, very angry. If you’re writing a story where good wins out, the victory of the antagonist’s demise is therefore made extra sweet.
I would be careful with extensive descriptions of animal cruelty in your books, however. Naturally people will be wary, and in my opinion, there should be some satisfying resolution where justice is dealt to the one tormenting the animal. Though, that goes for most descriptions of cruelty, unless the story is destined to have a tragic ending.
As a writer that likes happy endings myself, of course, the villain will usually get their karma handed to them in some way, especially if they torment animals. A lot of my antagonists don’t really do such things, however, as that’s a moral line I tack on for even my most heinous of characters. This isn’t always the case, however, as sometimes I need to depict someone truly evil.
On a much lighter note, how does one go about deciding what animal companion to choose for your character? It’s going to sound totally cliche of me, but I’ll say “go with your gut and/or heart”. How do you want your character defined, and how will they rely upon this animal? Can your animal speak to the protagonist?
For example, in my recent work, Cobratongue University, a faerie known as Gaelira has a unicorn companion named ‘Stomps’. Now, the unicorns in my series aren’t fancy-prancy or nice–they’re actually horrifying carnivores. If you’re curious, you can read about it for free here. But Stomps can actually communicate telepathically with her, and just like Gaelira, really likes a good story where ‘good’ wins out in the end. Therefore, he accompanies her frequently on their journeys and is a powerful ally.
I always imagine that if you’re trying to depict a strong, powerful woman or something, a good choice to consider could be a falcon. Imagine a fierce bird flying into battle and ripping the enemy’s eyes out as they’re stabbed in the center with a knife or spear. Pretty grisly and epic, eh? Or perhaps a hunting dog, one that can tear into your enemy’s throat and bring them down with ease. Wolves work in that sense too.
Softer animal companions like rabbits can also work as good companions to show the kindness of someone. Give a fierce looking male character a soft widdle bunny! Show that he has a heart of gold, because male warriors in stories are so often depicted as cruel and emotionless. I’d love to read a story where that’s the case–a soft adorable animal is protected fiercely and snuggled by an otherwise horrifying character. Hmmm… maybe I should give Ares a rabbit.
In conclusion, animal companions are big yes in my opinion for stories. They don’t fit into every one of them by any means, but are still something to consider for good character building in a story, especially for a protagonist (though the image of an evil villain petting a fluffy cat comes to mind too!)