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Part Six: A Creature Who Is Also A Character
If you’ve read The Horse and His Boyfrom the Chronicles of Narnia series, you doubtless remember Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah (or Bree for short, a lovely call-out from Lewis to Tolkien and The Prancing Pony in Bree). In fact, I don’t think you can read the book without remembering good ol’ Bree with his pride and his snarky comments and growing friendship with Hwin. Both the talking horses of the book are distinct. They have personalities that are easily identified and easily attributed to their experiences growing up. Bree became self-confident from years of captivity as a war horse among non-talking horses that seemed witless to him; by comparison, he was a genius, able to understand what his human riders commanded easier and faster than the other non-talking horses. Hwin, on the other hand, while also captured and raised among non-talking horses, is shy and more logical and reasonable as one of the stable horses for a noble house. These two are fantastic foils to each other throughout the story. But it’s easy to take two talking creatures and build them into full characters–they can tell you about their background and their experiences; they can throw out jokes and win hearts through glorious conversations. Think about other creature companions, though, ones like Hedwig who reveled in flying free and had an attitude sometimes, or the trusting, loving relationship that builds between Jakkin and Heart’s Blood the dragon in Jane Yolen’s The Pit Dragon series.
Each one of the most beloved, best remembered creature companions become favorites because of one thing: They are memorable characters. They have personalities and they are a part of who the main character is. Making sure your creature companions have personalities is an important step toward making your creature worth having. Just with extraneous characters who don’t fill any gap in the plot, creature companions must be put to work, too. To build that relationship both with the plot, the characters, and the audience, start with the small stuff: Who is this creature?
Who are they?
Starting at the very basics of personality, begin by asking yourself who this creature is. Where do they come from? Do they have family? What makes them happy or sad? Even if your creatures are regular animals or are mythical creatures that don’t have the power of speech, I still recommend knowing what makes the creature laugh. Maybe they don’t laugh like we do, but what makes them happy? How do they express that feeling?
Personality is as much expressed by behavior as it is by speech. Be sure you’re taking corresponding animal behaviors into account, including the bits combined to create your mythical creature. There’s a character in an old, old set of children’s books, Gink from Patricia Coombs’ Dorrie the Little Witch series. Gink is a black cat who follows the main character about, and while he has no lines, the cat appears in every picture of every book in the 20-book series. (Though Gink has no specified gender, my own cat Gink was male, so forgive me if I’m mildly biased.) Despite his silent role and few actions that are directly related in the plot (some! He does help from time to time!), Gink becomes an entire character of his own through his behind-the-scenes, background participation in the story with the audience. His curiosity, playfulness, and warnings–in short, his reactions–to Dorrie’s plights give the audience a distinct impression of who Gink is.
Think about when your creature will show affection and how, versus showing annoyance, anger, caution, hunger, and interest. What makes them curious? What will help them become more trusting and how does that trust manifest? What will always draw them in and what will they stay away from?
What do they want?
It’s said every character, no matter how little screen-time they receive, should have a goal. Whether that’s getting a coffee or rescuing their family, everyone wants something. If you have a pet at home, you know it’s true even with them. Bruce Coville’s Into the Land of the Unicornsintroduces Lightfoot, young unicorn prince whose ideals change as he accompanies the human Cara in her endeavors to save the world of Luster. He begins the tale wanting nothing more than to defy the fate his family has left him. He’s willing to leave every single one of them behind to do it, too, but by the end of the series, that desire has changed. As a character, he evolves, as all good characters should.
Be aware of why your creature is out there and why they’re willing to accompany your characters on whatever it is they’re up to. How does agreeing to do this help them get further toward their want? Maybe it’s just the security of knowing there are others to protect against dangers, or the promise of food at a regular pace, but it could also be their own quest to find something or someone, or even to save their homeland from certain destruction. Wants are small or large, but they must be present if you hope to build off of them and create real, natural, and effective actions for this creature to take.
What’s the worst thing they could face?
You’re going to put your characters through some Things™, and we all know it. Reactions cover a wide spectrum for all characters and your creatures will be no different, because, after all, we want them to be characters, too. So why not treat them that way when making them? You can’t know how broad their reactions will span until you’ve put some thought into the worst thing that could happen. This is more than just their worst fear. It branches into the idea of who they become when faced with difficult situations, as well. What could turn them not only into a cowering creature but also the worst version of themselves? What kinds of tactics would they be willing to engage in if things go horribly wrong? It helps you touch on morals when dealing with these creatures to whom you may not immediately ascribe the idea of having morals. Make them just as round as your real-life humanoid characters by making sure you know what they’re willing to do, how far they’ll go, and where the line is drawn in the metaphorical sand.
Long story short, your creatures are characters too! I can’t be alone in watching a couple of fish in a tank, pointing at one and saying, “That one’s got an attitude!” In a similar way, you should be paying attention to your creatures’ personalities–mainly that they have one. Remember that you don’t want them to be stock characters, so treat them like your other humanoid creatures when creating them. Without distinct personality, they cease to be companions and simply remain cardboard space fillers. They should be important! You want them to be memorable! Work on them like people and help to round them out.
“Dorrie the Little Witch” by Patricia Coombs was probably my favorite book series from the age of 5-8. Dorrie, the protagonist, is described as having a crooked hat and socks that never match. She has a black cat named Gink who follows her wherever she goes. She lives with her mother, the Big Witch, and their house-hand, Cook. The books are currently out of print. My favorite editions were “Dorrie and the Goblin” and “Dorrie and the Blue Witch”. I like the re-imagined witch’s hats that hang in the back. Dorrie was always so clever and resourceful. The “Big Witch” reminded me of my mom. The illustrations are so simplistic and delicate, but with a touch of eeriness. Some day I want to get a black cat and name him Gink.