No traditional fantasy hero is complete without an animal sidekick! Where would the hero be without their trusty horse or a sneaky (and cheeky) animal companion to help get them out of trouble? Or more likely into trouble in the first place!
I can think of many fantasy characters who have an animal companion, familiar, or sidekick, though none embrace the animal world quite like Tamora Pierce’s heroines. Alanna the knight was joined by faithful the talking black cat, and from Daine’s wild magic onwards, each of Pierce’s main characters have developed a relationship with the animal kingdom. Of course, Sand Dancer took some inspiration from these books with Fez the fennec fox.
Now, as Mina herself will tell you, Fez is no pet. He’s a wild animal and in the real world, fennec foxes do not make great pets. However, Mina loves Fez all the same and the story wouldn’t be complete without him getting into mischief and keeping Mina company during the hard times. Animal sidekicks can therefore add a lot to a fantasy story – or indeed, any story!
And so let’s go over the pros and cons of adding an animal sidekick to your own story! 🐱 🐶 🐺
Pro: Your Main Character will Never be Alone!
Main characters don’t always do well when they’re on their own. They need someone else to bounce ideas off or chat to, if only for the reader’s benefit. But when a character is on their own for whatever adventurous or dangerous reason, having another person tagging along isn’t always feasible. Sometimes they need a much smaller companion. An animal companion!
If your character is the broody loner type, then they may appreciate an animal companion instead of a human one. Even a hunter relies on their trusty wolf or hawk, and where would Geralt from The Witcher be without Roach the horse?
Con: They Need a Meaningful Purpose
Like all side characters, your animal sidekick needs a reason to be included in the story. I suspect this is why many authors don’t include an animal friend for their characters – when you’re trying to cut back on characters and your precious word count, an animal character takes up space.
The solution to this is not to treat them like some additional oddity, but to make them a character of their own right, complete with their own personality and motivations, even if their motivation is to protect their best human friend and receive belly rubs.
Animal sidekicks need to have a useful reason for being in the story. They need a purpose. Perhaps they can perform tricks, such as wiggling into small places and picking locks, which the main character relies on. Perhaps they help protect the main character from bad guys or give them an advantage in battle. Perhaps they help the main character get around. Or perhaps they’re simply an emotional support animal because lord knows we put our main characters through a LOT!
Pro: Your Animal Sidekick Adds to the Worldbuilding
When building the flora and fauna or your world, you can get really creative with your animals. Assigning an animal companion to your characters is one way to expand on the natural culture of your world! By dealing with your animal sidekick’s needs in relation to the world, you can show the reader how they exist in the world, rather than just tell us about them.
And this can add a whole new layer to your worldbuilding.
Con: They’re Easy to Forget
I’m guilty of this! You’ll plan out your whole book outline, then plan out the scenes with your epic battles and characters riding off into the sunset, and then at the end of the chapter you’ll stop and realise you’ve forgotten to include your animal sidekick! And then you’ve got to go back and write them in.
If your animal sidekick isn’t the fighting type, they can certainly get in the way of the plot. When your main character is duelling the bad guy, they can’t be worrying about their pet giraffe, but perhaps this is something you can work into the plot! Worrying about a pet can add tension to the story, as you’ll see below…
Pro: Your Reader Will Forever Worry About Them!
It’s true. Readers LOVE pet companions and they WILL worry about them! Many of my readers said they spent their entire read through of Sand Dancer worried for Fez, and if you read the reviews for other fantasy novels featuring a beloved animal companion, you’ll see just how many people worry for their safety.
This means you, as the author, can be a little evil and put your beloved animal sidekicks in harm’s way. The reader will be on the edge of their seat forever worried for their safety. However…
Con: You Can’t Kill Them. Ever!
That would make you an actual monster! If you don’t want your readers to hate you, then you can’t kill your animal sidekicks. You may disagree with me on this one, because I certainly have read fantasy books where the animal friend dies (no spoilers!) and it’s always a heartbreaking moment. But personally, I think it’s best to place itself and avoid the pitchforks by keeping your animal sidekick alive.
Which means if you’re a Sand Dancer fan, I won’t ever be able to hurt Fez 😱
Bonus Pro: Did Someone Say Merch Opportunity?
I’m a sucker for soft plushie things, I’ll admit, and I own a couple of stuffed fennec foxes. They make great giveaway prizes! And that’s not all! Think of all the exciting merchandise you could sell of your book! Next you’ll be getting the Disney film rights. Everyone loves cute animals! It’s a win-win.
Who is your favourite animal companion from a story? Let me know!