Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Purpose of Pets

  • Faithful: A cat/lesser deity/avatar of the goddess who guides (at least two) generations of heroes in Tamora Pierce's extended fantasy universe.
  • Huan: My personal favorite - Tolkein's probably angelic dog, companion of heroes, and owner of most badass and the second most heartbreaking dog death in the history of the universe.
  • Ponch: Kit's companion, a world-walking dog from Diane Duane's Young Wizards series.

And did you know that at some point in the bowels of Batman history, there was a Bat Hound? His real name was "Ace," and he was, in fact, Bruce Wayne's pet. Crazy.

Fantastic fiction is pretty big on the magic talking (and not-talking, and sometimes-talking, and allowed to talk three times before he dies) pets. From a magician's familiar to a farm-boy's hound, the prevalence of special pets is a trope that occurs and recurs and will probably never go away. I'm guilty of perpetuating the pet problem myself; as the Abigail is fond of mocking me for, in A Knight of the Land (my unpublished - hell, unedited - fantasy novel), the main character has three companion animals and most of his friends have at least one.

What's the appeal?

Much of the time, a pet is nothing more than an accessory, a visual and behavioral prop that explicates something about the character. A wizard gets an owl or a cat if he's a good guy and a raven, snake, toad or other icky thing if he's more ambiguous. Princes and other assorted gentry have hunting hounds and white warhorses. Exotics acquire improbable pets, like tigers and peacocks. Boys get pets that do something useful, girls get pets that are pretty and useless. Characters who are close to nature get lots of pets, each of which is invariably disliked by characters who are somehow unnatural. Nothing is wrong with this approach, exactly, though it is a little flat. This tactic sees best use in short stories or with bit characters in larger stories, when you want to provide lots of flavor for few words.

Similarly, but in a slightly more complicated way, villains and other hard-to-like characters often get pets to soften their image somewhat. He might have made bargains with the blackest dark from beyond the walls of the world, he might be hell-bent on domination and damn the consequences, and he might have killed the hero's entire family... but he loves that damned cat. He might be stern and unkind and mean to the protagonist, but he's good to his horse.

Oddly enough, I'm more forgiving of the former than the latter. I'd rather see a two-dimensional character with an equally two-dimensional pet that adds to her style (and therefore adds to my experience of the story) than a two-dimensional character with a two-dimensional pet that is supposed to add depth, but doesn't. I feel it cheapens the genuine bond some people share with their animals to slap a pet on a villain and call him three-dimensional. I will grant, though, that done well, as part of a more generalized campaign of deepening a character, this tactic can work wonders. By itself, though, it's cheap, silly, and clich├ęd.

Talking and magical pets, on the other hand, occupy a very special niche.

The talking magical pet phenomenon is partly simple wish fulfillment. I was a lonely little geek when I was a kid, and I spent years wanting a pet dog before I actually got one. Once I had one, I spent years soaking him up. Max was an important part of my life, and the only thing better than being with Max is... having Max talk and have magic powers! Then we could really be friends. We could finally share everything intellectually that we already shared emotionally - my dog could really be my best friends.

I can't have been the only lonely geeklet with a pet dog, so I doubt that I'm the only one who had this fantasy growing up and continues to revel in stories of magical talking pets.

I think the preponderance of pets in fiction, however, is based on this simple fact: dialog is generally more exciting than monologue. As I noted in my review of the movie based on Neil Gaiman's Coraline, explicating a character's thoughts when she has no one to talk to can be rough on the author. Sometimes the narration can simply dive into the character's head, but sometimes that's not appropriate, or simply becomes boring. Giving the character a talking pet provides him with someone he can bounce ideas off, even when the story takes him somewhere where company would be improbable. Even a pet who doesn't talk can react to the character's emotions and situation, which is sometimes all it takes to turn a monologue into something a little more exciting.

And if the big narrator in the sky ever sees fit to provide me a magical pet of my own (talking or otherwise), I'll be terribly grateful.

As the Abigail is wont to say "can we have a puppy now?"

* * *

  • Who's your favorite fictional pet? Your least favorite?
  • Where have you seen a pet used to particularly good or bad effect in fiction?
  • If you could have any magical pet, what would it be? What would it be able to do? Talking, or not? These are important questions, people!



I think my favorite fictional pet is Supergirl's horse Comet who was secretly a polymorphed centaur and secretly in love with Supergirl and once became human so he could date her.

The just don't write comics like that anymore.

Anonymous said...

You're right, and it's a crying shame. That sounds brilliant.

Unknown said...

Softening the bad guys' image reminds me of Lieutenant of Inishmore, which I saw the first half of at Berkeley Rep a week ago. It is a phenomenal and hilarious play built around that concept. I recommend it if you have a morbid sense of humor and a strong stomach (it turned out I am nowhere near morbid or strong enough). Ask the Abigail about it, I'm sure she's heard of it.

Also, why doesn't the good guy get a toad or a raven more? They're pretty cool animals and going against the grain makes the main character more interesting. Or you can do what T.A. Baron did in that book I just finished reading, The Lost Years of Merlin. There the main character has an animal companion he doesn't like and wants to be rid of. In the end it proves itself and you end up loving the pest. While the plot is interesting, that is not a book I recommend.

Scattercat said...

I'm actually having something of the opposite problem in my (perpetually) ongoing efforts at a novel, which is to say that my protagonist is amply supplied with magical talking companions and it's a real pig's ear trying to get him alone for a little while so I can really menace him.

Becca said...

I'd just to say how much I love Faithful, and especially The Disreptuable Dog.

Also, you forgot to mention the daemons in His Dark Materials. Obviously they are a lot more than just pets, but they still have something interesting to say about animal companions in literature.


Speaking of pets in fantasy literature, have you seen FABLE II? The video game features a faithfull dog as your stalwart companion that helps you find treasure and fight goblins and if you are evil enough you can order him to urinate on villagers.

Scattercat said...

Obviously, dog pee = quintessence of vicious sadism.


Urine trouble if you think otherwise?