The Familiar: A Look Into Fictional and Ancestral Tropes

There’s the hero and the side kick—then there’s the familiar. Unlike the side kick, the familiar is a small, but still important figure in a story. A familiar assists protagonists throughout the plot. Often, a familiar is akin to a mascot, which drives a message home to the reader.

Done right, a familiar leaves a reader with an indelible memory about the story. This can separate good stories from great ones.

Traits of a Familiar

Familiars come in a wide variety. Medieval horses, pet dragons, cyborgs, intelligent devices, faeries, spirits—the list is endless. These nifty pets are different from the protagonist and the other side characters; mainly through their race and function.

A familiar performs smaller duties like transporting the hero or providing supplies. Others serve as lesser side kicks, or action pets. Familiars do not carry the plot for the hero if the chips are down—rather, familiars provide extra help and resources for the hero to draw upon.

Unlike other animal companions, familiars have names that humanize them. They may have a unique trait or quirk that add to the story. Some authors use familiars for comic relief. Others as cuddly mascots as mentioned above.

Examples of Familiars

  • Ghost, a direwolf companion in Game of Thrones
  • Navi, the faery guide in Ocarina of Time
  • Pikachu, Ash’s companion from Pokemon
  • Saphira, the dragon from Eragon
  • R2-D2 and 3-CPO, robots from Star Wars
  • Hedwig, an owl from Harry Potter
  • Scooby-Doo, the Great Dane from his own show
  • Snoopy, a dog from the Peanuts series
  • Pluto, Micky’s dog in the Disney series
  • Raising Heart, an intelligent staff from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha

Familiars and Their History with Humanity

Most homeowners have a pet dog. This practice goes back millennia, well into the stone age. Humanity and wolves crossed paths, and a symbiotic relationship began, one that this continues today.

Theories vary from tribes bringing wolf pups home, to wolf packs taking advantage and learning from human hunting parties. Whatever happened, humans and dogs are now inseparable. There’s also copious folklore on faeries, imps, spirits, and other mythical creatures strewn throughout ancient cultures; many of these critters have also served as pets.

Adopting a pet is ingrained in our psychology—and there’s a reason readers savor this ancestral trope in stories. A hero having a familiar helps to humanize them, as many readers—who happen to be pet owners—can relate to the protagonist this way.

Familiars in Blade of Dragons

Blade of Dragons has multiple familiars, some which I created with the latest revision. Bessa is a giant ostrich mount for Pepper Slyhart, and Gerald Highmane has Lunaris. Each protagonist also has a vir’gol, intelligent artifacts that have personalities.

These familiars add to the character arcs and move the plot forward. Plus, they add to the worldbuilding in the Ethereal Seals series. The added immersion helps draw the reader deeper into the fantasy world. The respective protagonists carry a strong bond with their familiars; it’s a relationship that’s intimate and perhaps spiritual.

Tips to Creating a Familiar

Ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose of this familiar in the story?
  • How does it enhance the protagonist? Side characters? The plot?
  • What details or quirks would make it unique and appealing?
  • Do it add to the worldbuilding?
  • What is its name?

When naming a familiar, go for simple but with a clear message. A name like Thunderbolt for a horse—this implies a fast and perhaps reckless mount. A dragon named Spitfire suggests what its abilities are, plus it has a nice ring to it. An artifact named Heaven suggests a holy relic.

Pets and mythic familiars are a big part of humanity’s evolution. We’ll always treasure these companions and the small, but vital roles they play in both real life and the fictional omniverse.

What companions are part of your life, dear reader? How do you relate to them? What about those in stories? Leave a comment below. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “The Familiar: A Look Into Fictional and Ancestral Tropes

  1. Familiars are definitely an interesting aspect, some I dabble with myself, even if not as much. To me, another iconic is Geralt’s horse, Roach, in the Witcher series, mostly because of its weird AI when you call him to you, such as spawning on a roof – an unintended comic element in the games. And I think it’s a good example to mention R2D2, I probably wouldn’t have thought about that aspect for Sci-Fi on my own.

    Liked by 1 person

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