I’m almost done with the first draft of Cobalt! Early on with this book, I discovered the story was kind of writing itself as a middle grade, rather than young adult. (More on that in a future post.) On a whim, I wrote an animal character into the story: Ruby, a cute-at-first-glance, venomous flying squirrel. I really didn’t have any reason at first for writing her in, other than I thought it would be cool to have a smart animal sidekick to add to the fun – and I was fully prepared to hack her mercilessly out of the story if she ended up being too cartoonish (a term my dear friend and beta reader Ryan brought up, and which he also pointed out that I’ve managed to avoid with Ruby so far).
|I liked Pascal, but was he really necessary? He’s cute and spunky,
but did he contribute anything to the story?
I think some authors, especially whimsical hopeless romantics like me, might find it too easy to fall into the Disney trap by trying to work in sweet but unnecessary animal sidekicks. How many popular middle grade and young adult books are there with precocious pets as main characters? A few, sure. Not a lot. And do they work? I’m betting very rarely. What’s the trick to making them fit into a story? I’m trying to be really careful with this, because I like Ruby and don’t want to have to delete her. I will if I must, but here are a few of my arguments for animal characters that could work in a story. (And I’m not talking about books with animals as the only characters, which is an entirely different sub-genre.)
They’re integral to the plot. Sure, I could write around some of the problems my characters face without Ruby, but she’s gotten them out of a couple jams already, and in entertaining ways. How? She’s a bad-a flying squirrel with fangs. And she won’t hesitate to bite her favorite people as well as the bad guys, if they tick her off enough.
They’re either believably smart, or perfectly normal animals. Critters who can talk or understand human language perfectly might get a little too cutesy for a story. Ruby’s more intelligent than the average squirrel, partly because she has Cobalt in her blood and it changes a creature, and partly because her owner has her well trained. In the end, she’s still an animal, and doesn’t understand the things her human friends are up to – however, like most pets, she does realize when her people in pain or in danger.
|Just try this with Ruby! Really, in a book, an animal
sidekick has to be more than just a cute pet.
The action doesn’t revolve around them. If the animal sidekick is getting the main characters out of every single sticky situation, it’s a lazy way to write a story. What use is your protagonist if her pet is the hero all the time? (Unless that’s the whole point of the book. Ruby: Steampunk Action Squirrel! In that case, the book would not be middle grade or young adult.) However, if you need a distraction and just happen to have a flying squirrel with a mischievous streak, that might work…only once or twice, though.
|Add fangs and fur, and this is more like Ruby.|
I’m just going to stop my list here, because I’m on cough medicine with codeine and I can’t words very much anymore. And speaking of the words and all of their confusions, I’ll leave you with this just for fun, before I pass out completely:
|Read it out loud. Hilarious!|
Feel free to comment with anything you’d like to share on animal sidekicks! Can you think of any that worked for you? What about some that didn’t, but made it into a published book anyway?