Season 2, Episode 4: Three Tips for Writing Animal Companions


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Season 2, Episode 4: Three Tips for Writing Animal Companions Transcript

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

This is Season 2, Episode 4: Animal Companions

Here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from another Amy, who says: When I was reading The Other Side of the Sky, I fell in love with the cat! For a character who didn’t talk he had so much personality, and he added so much to the story. He reminded me of others I’ve loved too, and got me thinking about how to write them. Can you do an episode about animal companions?

Obviously I’m honour-bound to answer a question from another member of Team Amy/ie, but I loved this question, because I love animal companions too! A couple of my favourites are Mogget the cat from Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, Doe-Eyes the dog from Meagan Spooner’s Hunted, and Maruman the cat from Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series, but my list is very long!

For someone who loves animal companions, it took me a while to write my first – that was Kess the cat in Ice Wolves. She’s a stray who sometimes sleeps with our kid protagonists to stay warm, tucked away under someone else’s roof. Kess served many purposes, which we’ll get into in a minute.

My next animal companion was the bindle cat, and of course he was a collaboration with my friend Meagan Spooner, who was my co-author on The Other Side of the Sky. In fact, he was literally her cat! He was based on a real cat called Icarus, who was Meg’s companion for many years, and I think his realism is one of the reasons he’s so popular with readers. In the book, he’s a long-haired, slightly contrary ginger cat who always seems to know slightly more about what’s happening than the humans. That was… kind of true in life, actually, now I think about it.

Most recently came Oz, who’s a Tasmanian tiger – he appears in The World Between Blinks, where he knows everyone, and knows where to find all the best snacks.

One thing I know for sure is that you can’t just put an animal in your story, mention it’s there and declare your work done. An animal companion is woven right into the story’s fabric—they have a part to play and a purpose to serve. Done right, they enrich your work, so here are three tips for making the most of your animal companions.

Tip one: This is obvious, but often overlooked – make sure you study real animals.

Back in season one, when we talked about weaving your setting into your story, and showing your worldbuilding, we talked about the importance of picking out the right details. One small moment can make everything real for your reader, if it’s the right one. When we’re talking about worldbuilding, that might be pinning down exactly the clothing that makes sense for this climate. When we’re talking about setting, it might be the way it feels when you walk from a crisp, cold street into a warm shop, and the heat hits your face.

When we’re talking about animals, it could be the way they move. Have you ever noticed how some cats seem to flow down stairs like water, or the way a dog waiting for you to throw a ball manages to sit perfectly still and somehow quiver with anticipation at the same time?

It could be the way they smell—the overpowering scent of wet dog, or of a stable.

It could be the way they feel—a cat’s needle-sharp claws slowly sinking into your leg. You see what I mean, I’m sure—specificity helps make the animal real.

But of course there’s more to it than that, so here’s tip two – just like any good side character, you want to have your animal reveal information about your main character. The way your protagonist interacts with their animal companion, what kind of animal they have, the animal’s personality and how they came to be together – all of this can tell us an enormous amount about the character.

Let’s use the bindle cat from The Other Side of the Sky as an example—don’t worry, no spoilers ahead. If you haven’t read it, it’s about a prince who falls from a high tech city in the sky to a world below ruled by prophecy and magic, where he meets a living goddess, and discovers he’s a part of one of her prophecies. It’s a story about the intersection between logic and faith, and the cat plays a part in conveying that.

When we meet Nimh, she’s totally alone. She’s the living goddess to her people, and their religious laws means she can’t be touched by another human being. Not ever. She can touch her cat, though, and their relationship tells us so much about her. We see her caring nature, and how she’s deprived of other outlets for it. We see just how isolated she is. We see that although he’s a mysterious beast to others, she’s willing to trust in the cat without needing to understand everything about him – just as she trusts in her magic, without needing to understand every element of it. That faith in the unknown is a part of who she is.

When North encounters the cat, we learn some practical things about him – he’s from a high tech city in the sky, and he’s never seen an animal before. He literally doesn’t know if the cat can speak, how intelligent he is, or what he wants. He approaches the cat with a kind of wary, I-think-you-could-kill-me-in-my-sleep respect, but slowly their relationship develops. He begins to fall in with the cat’s mysterious ways, accepting what he doesn’t understand in exactly the way he begins to accept the magic of this new world, something he’d have laughed at back at home.  In a way, the cat embodies the relationships that both Nimh and North have with her world, and all the mystery found in it. Think about the ways your characters can relate to their animal companion, and what this might reveal about them.

My third tip is to know what you want to achieve with your animal companion – even if that’s only something you work out when you’re revising your story. Animals can add moments of humour or break tension, they can provide clues to a mystery with their behavior or origin story, and they can give small casts of characters someone to talk to. Turning your character’s musings from internal dialogue to something they can say out loud can make a real difference to the reader, as we discussed in last week’s episode on pacing.

In my latest book, The World Between Blinks, cousins Jake and Marisol slip into a fantasy world where all lost things are found, including extinct species. They team up with a Tasmanian tiger called Oz, who rather like the cat we just walked about, seems to know a lot more than you’d expect. Oz helps track down people they’re chasing, provides hints about where to go and what to do next, and thanks to the fact that everyone in the World is somehow friends with him, he acts as a pass for the two cousins – because they’re with Oz, people are more willing to trust and help them.

Your animal can also take action independently. In Ice Wolves, Kess – the stray cat who sleeps with our protagonists — encounters Anders after his first, dramatic change from human form to wolf form. Anders had no idea he had this ability, and it’s put him in danger and made his world a new and scary place. That night he’s all alone and human-shaped once more, and he encounters Kess.

It’s a huge relief, a moment of comfort and normalcy amid everything that’s changed that day. Except that when he tries to get close to her, she smells something new and different on him, and for the first time in their friendship, she hisses and spits, and runs away from him. It’s a low and lonely moment for Anders, and it underlines that everything really has changed in a far more effective way than him just thinking about it. It’s much more effective than this moment would be if he just thought about it, and felt sorry for himself.

So there are three tips for writing animal companions:

One, study real animals.

Two, think about how the characters react and relate to the animal, and what that can tell us about them.

Three, think about the ways in which your animal companion can move the plot forward or serve other purposes.

Here’s an exercise: Make a list of five different animals – any five you like. They can be the population of a farmyard – horses, chickens and cows – or a jungle – pythons and gorillas – or lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

Then beside each of these animals, jot down a sentence or two about what kind of companion you think it might be, and what purpose it might serve. What do you think a snake would tell us about her human, compared to a knight’s faithful horse? I’ll bet you begin to see how important the choice is already. 

Now, usually this is where we wrap up, but because it’s the last episode of the month, I’m sticking around a couple of minutes longer to give you a book recommendation. This month, I want to tell you about The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang.

As always, these book recommendations aren’t sponsored or influenced by anyone in any way—they’re just books I love that you might not have picked up, that demonstrate great writing, and make great reads.

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a graphic novel – if you haven’t read one before, then it’s a great place to start, and if you have, then it’s a great addition to your library.

It’s a story set at the start of the modern age in Paris. It’s about a prince who loves to wear dresses, but has to keep this fact a secret – by night he’s the stunning Lady Cristallia who’s taking the city by storm, but during the day, his parents are encouraging him to look for his wife.

His dressmaker and best friend is Frances – she creates the most gorgeous gowns for Lady Cristallia, but she can never take the credit – if people knew the prince’s personal dressmaker did that work, they might put two and two together. She’s always dreamed of making a name for herself as a designer, and now she’s forced to put her dreams on hold for the sake of her friend.

It’s a quick read that’s so much fun, and it’s also a really complex story about identity and acceptance, and it’s a tribute to how much of a story you can tell without words, and it’s a tour through the most wonderful fashion illustrations. 

It’s the sort of book that leaves you with a warm feeling inside your chest, and it rewards re-reading. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, if you’re interested in how stories work, this is one you’ll have a blast both reading and dissecting.

And that’s our book rec! Next week, I’ll be answering a question about writing villains.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen. Both these things help new readers find the podcast, and I really appreciate it.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, host of one of my favourite podcasts, The Exploress, which time travels through women’s history one era at a time. You can find her at theexploresspodcast.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


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