Experiences of Writing

Character Focus: The Animal Companion

So far I’ve talked about an adventurer, an idealist, an emperor and a scholar, but today we’re going to kick it 80’s style and celebrate animal companions.

OwlLabyrinth should have taught me not to trust Barn Owls. But they’re so handsome!

Legacy of an Era

I was born in the 1980’s, early enough to remember a lot of what came from that decade, and of course everything the 1990’s churned out for kids entertainment.
While the 90’s was absolutely great in the shows that hit the market, most of them pushing the envelope of storytelling and entertainment for younger audiences, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate the springboard those shows had to jump from.

The 1980’s were cheesy. Very cheesy. One-liners, bad puns, and quips accompanied villans and heroes in extremely black-and-white settings, and the plots of most of these shows centered around an ‘evil of the week’, always with matters returning to the status quo by the end of the episode. This was usually thanks to the heroes conveniently finding the critical item needed, or overhearing crucial information in a manner way beyond believable or likely.
The biggest reason for this, of course, was that a lot of those 80’s and early 90’s shows had a single purpose: selling toys.

He-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Thundercats, Voltron, The Real Ghostbusters, G.I Joe… the cartoons were toy adverts at their core.
And then there were theĀ other cartoons. The ones where the point was to send a message. Admittedly, most of the toy line shows had this too, and I’m sure anyone who remembers that era recalls most of these shows ending with some squeaky-voiced character telling you the moral of the story you just watched (Don’t do drugs, kids! Don’t go with strangers! Look after your pet!).
Still, some shows went beyond just a moral of the day and were centered around an overall message.
Care Bears and My Little Pony were all about friendship, C.O.P.S was all about ‘crime doesn’t pay’, Carmen Sandiego was a thinly veiled and poor geography lesson, Captain Planet was all about the environment… the 80’s in the 90’s saw toy lines give way to wholesome life messages before the 90’s then went off on a very imaginative tangent with shows like Gargoyles, Reboot, Mighty Max and Johnny Quest.

She RaYou better believe I had the Crystal Castle play-set, with She-Ra and Swift Wind.

The Animal Companion

All the show’s I’ve mentioned above are likely to familiar to those who grew up back then. And along with them, the names of certain characters are likely ingrained alongside those memories.

Cringer/Battlecat.
Uni the Unicorn.
Scooby-Doo.
Hobbes.
Dino.
Astro.
Brain.
Spirit/Swift-wind.
Snarf.

And a ton more. They are all the animal companions who work with and alongside the heroes to Get Things Done (TM). Many of them speak (in the case of my list, all of them do!), and they are as much a part of the series and stories as anyone else.
And usually as pithy, too.
Animal companions are one of the tropes of old cartoons that have stood the test of time, and made it all the way through into modern animation and storytelling of all stripes.
We have Toothless the dragon, Hedwig the owl, Pikachu the rodent, Perry the platypus, Sven the reindeer… the list goes on and on, but there’s a bit of a difference here – most of themĀ don’t speak anymore.

animal beautiful blonde daylight

Pet Syndrome

I personally feel we have a lot more respect today for just how much children can understand and relate to, and have progressed from cartoons to sell to toys to actually trying to reach out to children in a more genuine manner.
While old 80’s cartoons certainly did their job of separating right from wrong, it was usually a very black and white case we were shown, while today’s cartoons have a tendency to see the grey areas of human social behavior much clearer. For all cartoons re fantastical and anything can happen, there’s a degree of background realism in them now that was perhaps not there before.

I think animal companions are also part of this. No longer are the animals in a show there to deliver pithy exposition or dialogue to explain what is happening to cover for the lower quality of animation and storytelling. They are usually there in a much more realistic role, akin to the pets we keep in real life.
Toothless the dragon is very much modeled on cats in real life, especially in his expressions, and despite his lack of vocabulary, it’s very easy to understand how he feels when you watch the How To Train Your Dragon media.
Similarly, Pikachu is relegated to a single word, but everything the little lightning mouse does is understandable from tone and inflection alone.
And often, there will come a point in the story where the care for this non=speaking animal that is dependant on its human owners becomes the focus, usually for just an episode or two.
With Pikachu, it comes in the early TV show when Ash rushes him to the Poke center.
With Toothless, it comes when Hiccup befriends the beast while he is injured.
With the Harry Potter series, the storyline around Crookshanks the cat performs this role best.

There is a certain ‘maturity’ in the media of today that lets children recognize responsibility and companionship in those without speech, without the rather cheap 80’s habit of having animal companions conveniently healed by magical powers if they got hurt. And it’s certainly cheaper than trying to teach the same lessons with a string of hamsters or goldfish.

hummingbird-bird-birds-349758.jpeg

Animal Companions on Hevna

Certainly, the examples I gave in all of the above are not universally true for all media. There are still talking pets in modern cartoons, just as there were silent ones in early media.
Instead, I have wittered about these trends to explain the general feeling I personally have on this topic, from my own experience growing up.

As with all things, that understanding and thinking has shaped my own work and how I handle the animal companions of my setting.
There are two big ones that appear in my work – the Magus ferret Merl, and the Peryton named Harper. Both of them perform very different roles, but I made the decision early on that they would not have speech. It simply makes no sense for my setting, and consistency with reality in certain areas matters to me.

Merl
Merl is a creature that has evolved alongside what passes for ‘magic’ on Hevna, and as such, she is larger than your common ferret and smarter. She is companion to the Rasaalian Kez, and probably the superior thief of the two. Raised from birth around people, she has no fear of them and her intellect allows her to follow instructions and adapt to unusual circumstances, such as wearing a harness and other accouterments in the course of her travels with Kez.
Like the animal companions of 80’s cartoons, she is often a catalyst for the story or allows various elements of the tale to be realized by circumventing problems her human counterparts cannot overcome, but (crucially) her behavior and actions are based on realistic expectations and explanation (I hope!).
Like her more modern TV counterparts, she shows her emotions through body language, behavior and chittering, and I have tried to base much of her behavior on pet ferrets in our own world.

Harper
In contrast to Merl, who is a more intelligent version of her real-world counterpart, Harper is anything but realistic.

For starters, he is a Peryton – a mythical beast that has never existed in reality. A species of deer with wings, I chose early on to apply some real-world logic to his biology (such as describing Perytons as having air-sacs in their bones like birds do), but his mental state is somewhat removed from that of his core species.

Harper grew up from a very young age as part of the court of Rasaal. A gift for Anka, he has always known people and thus lack an intrinsic fear of humanity, though his instincts are still that of a prey species.
Crossed with a Golden Retriever.
Loyal, silly, possessing a good sense of smell and a certain degree of dopiness, he is a daft but loveable pet in many ways, with a lot less ‘companion’ in his title, beyond affection between him and his owner.
Rarely does Harper actively drive the plot, though he often reacts to it in a way that affects the story. He needs a lot more care than Merl, is a lot less independent and thus a good deal more passive. Despite this, he is almost more fun to write because of his unusual combination of features and ability to act differently to reality.

 

I hope that writers of the 80’s, when making their animal companion characters I ended up buying every single toy of, had that same enjoyment of just breaking with reality to make something a bit ridiculous, but fun.
I love the way storytelling for children has grown (as a former teacher, I can’t help but appreciate the quiet teaching in some series, though please don’t get me started on the ‘dark side’ of progress like Spongebob Squarepants…), but there’s a charm of the older generations of tales I always enjoy when it crops up again (looking at you, Perry the Platypus…).
Harper and Merl are always fun to write, even though they are quite different from each other, and seem to be one of the more popular elements of my longer works. Long may that continue.

 

(You can find out more about the creatures of Hevna here, including images of Merl and Harper!)

 

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