How to Write a Lovable Animal Sidekick
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
We all love a good sidekick in a story. Especially if said sidekick happens to be of the furry and/or adorable persuasion. That’s why books like Marley & Me, Old Yeller, and Shiloh are so popular—you can’t say no to that cute face, am I right? And I’m sure we all have favorite non-talking fantasy creatures: a pet dragon, for instance.
But how do writers craft such lovable characters without granting them human speech? What makes a reader care so much about your hero’s animal friend?
Let’s break it down. On paper . . . ‘cause too many butt-in-chair days have rendered me incapable of spontaneous dance.
1) Make ‘em quirky as hell.
You think you need to make your human characters quirky? Absolutely. Now double that for your non-human ones. Triple it. Make them so quirky, they could have their own sitcom.
What you’re doing is making up for a lack of dialogue by amping their “human” qualities. If you’ve ever been a pet owner, you know that animals, no matter how “uninteresting” (fish, anybody?), will have their own personality. One of my cats, for instance, is a sass machine. How do I know? Because she walks like she owns the place, and she will back-talk me in cat language if I say anything to her. She also puts the smack-down on the two kittens in the house if they try to mess with her.
Decide what your animal’s personality will be and how that will influence them to act. Are they lazy, energetic, intelligent, or a bit lacking in common sense? Figure it out and then:
2) Actions speak louder than words.
This is exceptionally true for your animal characters because they won’t be doing any talking. You will need to emphasize their actions.
Remember Lassie? The dog that got Little Timmy out of the well? Wouldn’t that scenario have played out so much quicker if she’d just said, “Yo, your kid’s stuck in a well”?
Probably, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic or touching. Since brave Lassie had no human words with which to communicate, she threw all her energy into yelling at the thick-headed humans in dog-speak and herding them to where poor Timmy awaited. Animals have to work harder than humans to make themselves understood: keep this in mind.
3) Give them a purpose.
Your animal doesn't have to be a central character like Old Yeller, but if you want them to matter in the story, then they will need a purpose. Like every supporting character, you cannot plop them willy-nilly into your plot if they do not help drive it forward. They have to have some meaningful impact—and, no, it can’t be how cute and fluffy they are. That is irrelevant.
Maybe your animal is very intelligent and helps your character figure out plot points. I often see this scenario in mysteries, where the animal (usually a dog) is a police or detective companion able to sniff out clues the protagonist can’t. Maybe they aid your character’s emotional arc, as seen in the movie I Am Legend where the hero’s only friend in a world without people is a dog; you can imagine how he would be pushed over the edge if anything were to . . . *cough* happen to the dog.
Whatever you choose, your non-human pal must contribute to the overall goal.
4) Make your characters care.
The above pointers will help your reader feel closer to your animal amigo, but if you want to give readers that last shove into the pit—if you want to pull them all in—make your character(s) care deeply for the animal. Show us the love they have for their non-speaking compadre.
Example: it's sad when Old Yeller dies. He was a likable dog. Very loyal, very sweet. Wouldn’t hurt a fly, always went everywhere his boy Travis did. But is it his death alone that reduces people to a teary mess?
No. It’s knowing Travis adores his dog and having to watch his grief-stricken face as he confronts his rabid best friend for the last time.
The same reason we become attached to a main character’s family, or friend, or love interest—the main character’s love and devotion to them—is the one that will make us care for their non-human companions. Give me a well-written and relatable main character and I'm automatically endeared to everything they value—including their pets.
Alrighty, folks! Hope those brain goodies spark some ideas or put someone on a path to creating more characters this animal lover can obsess over.
Tell us about your favorite animal sidekick(s) in the comments! And which fictional animal death are you still not over?