The urge to put a blog in that combined both small children and animals was quite strong as I watched my kids make a huge mess in the kitchen today, but that will have to wait (true, there are some small differences). So I’m just going to look at the use of animals in fantasy writing for the moment.
Animals have a significant role to play in stories, from fantasy beasts to beasts of burden, they can provide a useful character that can surprise and delight your audience like the furry dragon in Never Ending Story, or display shocking behaviour like the dragons in Game of Thrones, or be a steadfast magically linked companion like the wolf in Assassin’s Apprentice. As animals, they can follow different rules to human or humanoid characters, because they can be that little bit wilder, a little more out of control. If you’ve ever ridden a horse that has a mind of its own you’ll know what I mean! So I’ve provided a little inspiration for you to have a look at if you’re considering adding an animal to your stories.
- Getting from A to B – The simplest way of injecting an animal into your story is to have a horse, donkey, flying creature or some other animal that can transport your other characters around your fantasy world. This provides a great convenience for travel, but the way your characters treat such creatures will also say a lot about them personally. For example: Baron Elson barked an order at Nelly to take his reins as he leapt from his mount and stormed into the guardroom, leaving her frozen in his wake. She ran her fingers down the bloodied flanks of the horse as it blew and snorted wearily from its harrowing journey, and then pressed her face into the dampness of its neck and wept for its pain.
- Companion – Some of the most endearing animal characters are those that are constant companions and can be counted on every step of the way, and by companion I mean more than just a ‘pet’, I mean an animal that’s practically a human replacement to the other characters. These are often horses with an attitude in a good number of books I’ve read, but over the years I’ve also seen monkeys, dogs, cats, bats, dragons and other types of completely made-up creatures, and if you look at children’s fantasy you’ll also find the odd frog, insect or chameleon. Try not to litter your story with too many companions, as it can be a bit much, but you’ll get away with one or two that you can concentrate on to really bring out its special little nuances and personality. Again, how your other characters treat a companion animal says a great deal about them, and the way that animal responds also says a lot. A dog that gets plenty of attention will wag their tail and give you a big lick, but if it gets a thump from its owner it will usually slink away into the shadows.
- Comic relief – Animals are great at doing something funny unexpectedly – slobbery licks, drooling, various bodily noises, amusing little habits, backflips, eating the dinner you’d thought was safe on the kitchen table (OK, so that’s only funny later), etc. For example, my husband used to have a donkey that would purposefully go under low hanging branches if anyone tried to ride it. This can be a boon for a story that has been very serious up to a point and needs a little lift before it goes back into the mire. Alternatively, people can also do something that makes the animal funny, such as decorating them, making them do a little dance, getting them to steal some sausages, etc. Because the animal is usually low down in the pecking order, they’re usually the fall-guy and end up doing something the main characters wouldn’t dream of doing, which can be a real mood lifter.
- Tragic hero – Sad to say, but it’s usually the animals in stories who do something heroic only to die immediately afterwards. This can be a very useful plot device as your main characters are still kicking, while their selfless companion has given their life to save them. This can create a great deal of empathy in your audience as they mourn the tragic animal hero but can watch as the other characters get on with the story. Or, there may be a miraculous recovery…
- Still wild – A lot of animals that people try to domesticate are still inherently wild. I know of a man who tried to tame an otter, but the animal regularly bit and scratched him and eventually ran off. This is something you can inject into an animal in your story if you want to keep your audience a bit off balance, never quite knowing if the animal is going to eat their master in the middle of the night or is their best friend. If the animal is particularly large, being eaten can be quite a real and frightening prospect. But you could always play this wildness against the wildness of other characters in the story. What if the animal is effectively being framed and one of the human characters is actually the one that tore the neighbour to shreds?
- Something nasty – Of course you can always have a creature that will never be tamed, and by its very nature it is continually seeking meat, souls or a nice warm body where it can lay its eggs, which effectively makes it the villain. The darker, faster and sharper of tooth and nail that creature is, the scarier it will be. It’s that element of unpredictability that makes such a creature truly frightening, never knowing when it will attack or for what reason.
- Changelings – You may also wish to have people in your story who become animals at specific times or permanently in the story – by choice, circumstance or force. The story about how this happens to them could be an aspect of fear that you build as you progress. If you look at the old werewolf stories, imagine being bitten by one and then knowing that you might then kill those you love when the moon is full. Or could one of your characters be changing people into animals against their will (which is something I’ve done in my novel Cry of the Elemental ) or make it a part of the person themselves, where they change into a menacing creature unknowingly or under sufferance. Of course, the animal the person becomes could be quite useful as well, such as becoming a mouse and getting into places others cannot, or being able to fly over walls. It doesn’t have to be all bad.
- Food – Animals in your story may be no more than a food source or be the food themselves, whether that food is everyday or fantastical is up to you, but something a little more unusual can add a bit of spice to your story. Not quite the goose that laid the golden egg, but something down that path. Animals in the farmyard or home are an everyday part of the way people have lived for thousands of years, and the number and type of animals hanging around may indicate the class or stature of the people involved. Rare and unusual animals can indicate wealth, while a few scrawny chickens scratching about in the house may show the other end of the social tree. But it does depend on the circumstances. For example, large domestic animals have been kept inside even very wealthy homes over the centuries simply to generate warmth in very cold climates.
- Pets – A creature that is purely a pet rather than a companion is always a nice character to have around in stories as well, as they provide an air of domesticity and even the exotic. Birds in gilt cages, tigers on silver chains, a pond full of crocodiles, etc., I’m sure there are all sorts of pets you can think of. But this is fantasy, your pet might be something fairylike singing in its little cage, or a tiny fire breathing dragon that lights your pipe, or a frog that becomes a prince when kissed.
- Disease – Unfortunately animals occasionally bring disease into the world of people. The black death was spread by the fleas that rats were carrying about, types of influenza have been spread by birds and pigs, and tuberculosis can potentially be spread from some animals to humans. Disease can be a good change device in a story as it will endanger your characters and may make them act hastily, so it’s worth considering using an animal to bring the disease into play.
- Dragons anyone? – I’m afraid that I’m a bit reluctant to use dragons or call a creature a ‘dragon’ in any of my stories. I know there is plenty of popular fantasy fiction out there at the moment with dragons in it, but it’s a creature that tends to go in and out of fashion a bit. A few years ago one editor told me that adding a dragon to your story can actually put publishers off; literary poison! But magical creatures don’t need to just be dragons, they can be just about anything – branch out and find inspiration from myths, legends, real creatures and other stories you’ve read. Dragons may be big, scary and exotic, but so are a lot of other creatures.