The Familiar as Character Prop

Familiars: a perpetual presence on a character’s shoulder, not quite thinking in lockstep with the character but not entirely separate, either. I’ve written about familiars before. But that was about the familiar as a character in her own right; tonight, I’m going to talk about the familiar as an outgrowth of a character. (Needless to say, these techniques are best used by writers and by gamers under lenient GMs, as they assume the familiar and the character are being controlled by the same person.) Note: for purposes of this riff, I’m treating D&D paladin mounts and everything with a rating of 3+ dots in Exalted as a “familiar”, so don’t expect just small animals.

Of course, there’s the practical benefit to the familiar, whether that’s mechanical bonuses, sense-sharing, a spellcasting vector, an extra pair of eyes that can go places the character can’t, key-filching when the situation requires it, providing transportation, or curling up on someone’s lap (possibly even the character’s!) for a nice bout of cuddle-therapy. This one’s pretty simple to incorporate. If the character is accustomed to these advantages, we figure out how to express that; if not, we figure out how they learn. Pretty simple.

There’s also what the familiar’s species itself says about the character. Oftentimes, a warrior-type will be paired up with something large, regal and useful in a fight (horse, wolf, dragon, whatever), a spy will have something small and sneaky, a spellcaster will utilize something mysterious or symbolic, you get the idea. But you can also use an animal to play up an image contrast (giving a warrior a mouse or something similarly cute and semi-defenseless, for instance), to hint at yet unexplored facets to a character, to demonstrate a utilitarian mindset or a sense of drama, or to show that this character happens to be fond of this particular species.

And then there’s the care and upkeep of the familiar, how much said familiar sees that as its due, and what the owner thinks about it. These also vary; the familiars who can’t feed themselves are of course more justified in demanding assistance, though you wouldn’t know it to hear some who can and choose not to gripe. Others might insist on taking care of themselves more than they should, with corresponding responses from the owner. Protection also fits into this; in many cases, the owner will be far better than the familiar at keeping both of them alive.

While many people use familiars as being part of their owner, complete with similar personalities, differences in mindset between the familiar and the owner can provide a wealth of characterization and interest. Some people even deliberately design their familiars as foils to their characters, or find them acting as such (Shizuyo’s flamboyant nature, as contrasted with her human Amaya’s general emphasis on subtlety, was an accident, but one I found useful as time went on). This doesn’t just mean friendly bickering, either, though that’s always fun—one of my favorite uses for foil-familiars is having them do and say things their owner either isn’t allowed to or just plain wouldn’t do. And then there’s the natural conflict between the human and the animal’s instincts, particularly when trying to get a wild-raised familiar to behave in a civilization-appropriate manner. Even raised pets might have bad habits!

Any of these things can bring out aspects of the character that might otherwise be hidden. Give it a try!

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