ANIMAL SIDEKICKS AND PETS IN FICTION
By Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” —Groucho Marx
Animal characters in stories aren’t just for children. You can go through millions of children’s books and find the same number of animal sidekicks and pets as main characters and their antagonists, providing comfort, support, and companionship to the children’s heroes.
Animals are near and dear. We often imagine them to be all that we are not. Thus it’s no great wonder that they show up and play important roles in our stories. There are hundreds of tales that sentimentally humanize animals, but even in the ones that don’t, animals are essential to the completeness of many characters’ lives and the mysteries of humans.
But why are ‘grown-up’ books featuring animals as sidekicks or just plain ole-pets so successful? First of all, any pet owner—myself included—will object to the term, plain ole. No such thing. Every pet has its own personality, likes, dislikes, habits, and quirks, just like us. On top of that, we often imbue them with human behaviors and sentiments—in some cases, that is realistic and in others not, but the question remains, why do we love these stories? What is it about animal sidekicks or companions that attract many readers?
There are as many opinions as animal sidekicks; among them is the theory that authors are free to attribute emotions to animals that might be construed as too sappy in a human. Then, of course, animals don’t usually warrant life stories of their own, although I’d bet any author writing a pet sidekick or companion in fiction could give one. Animals can display levels of loyalty to its human that does not read the same person to person. Can you imagine a human sitting beside another human, panting for their attentions, hanging on every word, listening to their thoughts, insecurities, and foolish notions, without sitting up and saying, “Hey, pal? Get over yourself,” or “Get off your duff and take care of business?” Not likely. So, where do we find these lovable, funny, sometimes sad creatures in literature?
In most genres, we find unforgettable, heart-warming, emotional, and spirited animals like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia. Then there is Charlotte, in Charlotte’s Web, and not to be ignored, Hedwig, Harry Potter’s owl, but some of the most heart-wrenching are the animals that are written into sagas, such as Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 War Horse.
The book, the movie, or the play are all tearjerkers, but not with the epic scope of the true account of the horse it’s based on: Warrior. This amazing story of a real warhorse published 1934, was based on My Horse, Warrior by General Jack Seely. It documents the hell that horses endured during the Great War. You won’t get through this one without a box of tissues.
Sometimes, authors need a villain, and according to Disney, “from time to time we like to shine a light on the work of villains and their sidekicks,” which brings us to the feathered friends or not-friends of Iago, Jafar’s parrot sidekick in Aladdin. Who can be more deliciously evil than Maleficent with her Raven? There’s Mockingjay from the contemporary Hunger Games, and perhaps the nicest in a novel and outside the cartoon world is Harry Potter’s Snowy Owl, Hedwig, loyal, intelligent, and affectionate.
Cats and dogs are also a staple in Romance writing . They provide the author with a character who can be the subject of a tug-of-war in the humans’ breakups. They can reveal the softer side of a character portrayed otherwise as cold or emotionally distant. Still, perhaps their presence is felt most in the mystery categories, beginning with its subgenre of cozies.
For those who aren’t exactly sure of what defines a cozy, neither am I, but the definitions I find basically explain that the cozy mysteries have specific characteristics in common: these are “gentle crime books.” No graphic violence, no profanity, and no explicit sex. Most often, the crime takes place “off stage,” and death is usually swift. The characters must be likable, most often not professional crimes solvers – amateurs and primarily women. Into this fray enters the pet sidekick.
There are shelves of cozy dog mysteries—in fact, too many to list, beginning with Michael Bond’s Pomme Frites (French Fries) and Dashiel Hammet’s Thin Man Mysteries with Nick and Nora Charles, and their female Schnauzer, Asta.
Among the most popular cozies are cat-detective mysteries, a universe of its own. In the realm of regal cats, there are also too many to name, but among the most famous are Lillian Jackson Braun’s cats, Koko and Yum Yum, in The Cat Who… series.
Given the characteristics that we love in animals, it’s no wonder that literature, particularly the mystery genres, is full of them. If you’re in the market for some plucky animal characters, real and imagined, all you need do is google Animals as Pets and Sidekicks in Fiction.
Perhaps your pets will be interested in hearing these opinions. Pictured here: Miss Millie, my boss, whose characteristics can be found in the cats of the Housekeeper Mystery Series, LaLa, Ziggy, and Sasha.