On Telepathic Companions

Standard Caveat: What I say may be highly opinionated, blah blah, everything can possibly be done so long as you can justify it, blah blah, think for yourself, blah blah, so on and so forth. Now that that’s out of the way, we can get down to some sort of work.

You’ve seen them. The cute animals who follow the protagonist around and talk like this into each others’ heads. The poor schlobb who gets assigned the task of fetching the cell keys which have been placed conveniently just out of reach of the hero, but within reach of the telepathic companion. The bit players who come on-screen, slavishly pander to the hero’s every whim, and then disappear when not needed like so many horses which vanish without a trace once the protagonists enter a town.

Yeah, them.

Done well, they can add life to a story and be as complex and individual a character as any other human. Sadly, almost all of the time they’re little more than satellite characters set to revolve around a particular idiot with the remote control. It’s very sad sometimes, because there’s so much wasted potential.

Since we’re all familiar with a certain individual and his flying blue disco ball, I suppose I’ll have to draw a number of examples from there, although good examples will have to come from somewhere else.

1. I’m not an animal, I’m really a human with some special powers and a very good disguise.

Once, I read a Far Side strip where a scientist invented a helmet that allowed him to talk to dogs. Interestingly enough, all they had to say was “yipe! Yipe! Yipe!” It was a cute cartoon, but it highlights a main problem of a lot of fantasy: the tendency to over-anthropomorphise animals, which again boils down to the general anthrocentricity of fantasy because, well, writers are human and think in human ways and forms. The language barrier between the scientist and the dogs had been removed, but still, the dogs couldn’t form words or ideas recognisable by the scientist. Which would make sense, even if we consider only how a dog’s senses work and how it perceives the world, compared to how humans perceive the world.

This I find interesting, because a lot of telepathic companions—be they wolves, horses, dragons, living rocks. They all seem to perceive the world the same way humans do, are intelligent enough to express their thoughts clearly in ways perfectly understandable by their human—well, I wouldn’t say companion. Perhaps “handler” would be more appropriate for most cases—and oddly enough, appear to adhere to the hero’s values and morals, which conveniently happen to coincide with modern western morals and values.

Uh, yeah. The so-called animal companions don’t have animalistic instincts, behaviours, or desires. Animals have intelligence, yes, but quantity notwithstanding, which is ofen explained away as being augmented thanks to the telepathic bond—do they think the way we do? Perceive events the way we do? Even more egregious is the way animals adopt human morals in the snap of a finger—when wild animals, even charismatic species, clearly don’t.

Rabbits eat their own young when starving; killer whales eat them even when not starving. Alpha females in wolf packs will harass lower-ranked females when they do in heat to prevent them from breeding. Bottle-nosed dolphins, those cute little guys in the aquarium which jump through hoops? They’re one of nature’s greatest misogynists—out in the wild, dolphin pods herd their females by ramming them with their beaks hard enough to cause serious injury. Roving gangs of males often kidnap females from other pods, kill any calves she may have to make her more receptive to mating, then proceed to gang-rape the abductee into submission before herding her into their pod.

And you ask me why I burst out laughing in the train while reading The Dolphins of Pern?

The point I’m making here is that if you want an animal companion, make it an animal companion, otherwise, just make the character a hominid sidekick with special powers. It’s a subset of the “physical affects the mental, social and spiritual” guideline I like to tote around.

2. If you’re going to make me sentient and intelligent enough to comprehend my worth as an individual and I am under no compulsion, I would like to be treated as an individual, too.

Which is one of the greatest annoyances which stems from telepathic companions in general. It’s a subset of the problem of satellite characters, characters who orbit around another character and are only defined in terms of their relationship with said character. A good indicator of this is when someone is referred as a possessive of someone else—for example, “Crono’s mom”. This is usually a-okay for very minor characters such as the random barmaid in scene #472A, because their appearances are so brief that it’s possible for me as a reader to give the author reasonable doubt and believe that they have their own inner lives separate from the character in question. However, with larger bit players (such as telepathic companions) who stick throughout a larger portion of the story, the verisimilitude quickly breaks down.

We’ll take an example from our favourite series to derive schadenfreude from—_Inheritance_. In the series, we are explicitly told that Eragon(er)’s relationship with Saphira is supposedly one of equals, yet throughout the series the relationship is clearly an unequal one, up to the point where it is explicitly stated by the author that Saphira’s concerns all revolve around Eragon and she is treated like a pet, up to and including Eragon throwing scraps of chicken for her to scrabble for—all for his own amusement. The few times she actually disagrees with him are either inconsequential in terms of the overall plot (meaning the disagreement could have been taken out, and it wouldn’t have required what little plot there was to change). She has absolutely no personality beyond what is required by the current scene.
Which is annoying. Even Pernese dragons, which are explicitly stated to be in an unequal relationship with their riders, have more of a personality than that (although admittedly, not much, especially as the series wore on).

Of course, this can always be justified—perhaps the telepathic companion’s species in the wild is a social animal, and needs to follow a clearly defined leader or alpha (although in this particular case, it would be interesting to see what happens when the reverse occurs. I’ve seen dogs which clearly thought they were the alpha of the household).

But most of the time, telepathic companions which are presented as possessing human intelligence, human emotions, human behaviour and human morals are treated as anything but human consistently by the actual human characters. This, of course, is made even more laughable if and when there is an Issue regarding discrimination being discussed anywhere in the novel.

People and creatures with enough intelligence and a sense of self-worth aren’t going to take being treated like a dumb animal lying down. Even the D&D 3.5 Draconomicon explicitly states that even if dragonets accept a member of another species as a mentor and parent figure, mistreatment almost always results in it running away at the first opportunity or attacking the mentor figure, directly or indirectly.

3. Only charismatic animals exist.

Do I even need to state this? Think back to the times when you’ve seen obnoxious animals talking into people’s heads. Cool dragons. Pretty white horses. Wolves. Dolphins. Lions and dogs and the occasional cat. Eagles, falcons, and other birds of prey. All of them, mythological or real, creatures that have a good reputation with western ideas. No one wants a buzzard, or a grey parrot, or a donkey, or any sort of insect. Because, you see, they aren’t cool enough to be made as a statement of one’s fashion sense and power.

Which boils down to the problem stated in point two—that telepathic companions aren’t treated as individuals even in supposedly equal relationships, but rather, extensions of another character. Because if you have a carrion bird (which actually is a vital part of many ecosystems) you are automatically an evil subhuman who lives as a parasite on sicety and benefits from others’ misfortune…

Yeah. I think you get my point.

4. All take and no give—why am I even with you in the first place?

Let’s start this point off with a lovely quote from Richard A. Knaak’s Warcraft novel Day of the Dragon, a book which is in my opinion, like all of Knaak’s other work, a steaming, festering pile of vomit. In the below excerpt, Falstad (a Wildhammer dwarf) has just pushed his gryphon to its limits following Neltharion, lost the bugger anyways, and they’re setting down to rest:

He rubbed the gryphon’s leonine mane. “But a good beast you are, and deserving of water and food!”

“I saw a stream nearby,” Vereesa offered. “It may have fish in it, too.”
“Then he’ll find it if he wants it.” Falstad removed the bridle and other gear from his mount. “And find it on his own.” He patted the gryphon on the rump and the beast leapt into the air, suddenly once more energetic now that his burdens had been taken from him.

“Is that wise?”

“My dear elven lady, fish don’t necessarily make a meal for one like him! Best to let him hunt on his own for something proper. He’ll come back when he’s satiated, and if anyone sees him…well, even Khaz Modan has some wild gryphons left.” When she did not look reassured, Falstad added, “He’ll only be gone for a short time. Just long enough for us to put together a meal for ourselves.”

And of course, my reaction on my LJ:

Ha. Ahahaha. Very funny. Very funny. And here, friends, is a cut-and-dried example of what NOT to do to any animal companions your characters may have; getting rid of them when you don’t need them. To address Opifex’s concerns—Warcraft gryphons may not have human-level intelligence to the point of sentience, but they’re portrayed as damn smart, being able to memorise long flight paths, extricate themselves from sticky situations and definitely have their own emotions.

But that’s not really the point I was trying to make. The Wildhammer dwarves are supposed to love and respect their gryphons, animals or not. If you own World of Warcraft, go to Aerie Peak as Alliance, do some of the quests there, and actually read the damn quest text—it shows how much the Wildhammer dwarves care for and respect their gryphon companions. To have Falstad treat his gryphon like…well…a damn plot device goes against previous characterisation of the Wildhamer dwarves’ culture. Then again, why am I surprised? Someone here has a lovely habit of mangling the lore, either out of wanting to make his own self-insert characters look good, or out of sheer laziness.

That aside, I wouldn’t even bloody do that even if it was just an animal. How many, say, horse owners wouldn’t lead their animals to drink and perhaps find a good grazing spot for them? Which dog or cat owner tells their pet “All right, great job slaving away for me, now go outside and get your own dinner”? Even if the gryphons are just animals, caring for your pet’s basic needs is one of the owner’s most important responsibilities, and this is just sick.

Why, I don’t like Rhonin, and encourage everyone I know who still plays to /spit at him every chance they get. Infantile? Perhaps, but damn, does it feel good. Back to the point, though—half the time the telepathic companions don’t even have half a reason to stick with people who neglect and mistreat them, and suffer stupid and crippling disabilities such as dying when the human dies. Like Eragon, who provides pretty much no practical benefit to Saphira. It’s annoying. At least try to come up with a reason, or flat-out admit that the relationship is parasitic.


The problem telepathic companions isn’t a simple one—it has roots in the general anthrocentrism of fantasy, the problem of satellite characters, of putting things in merely because they are cool—I won’t deny that I have very high standards in this regard, if only because I’m a cynical, disillusioned bastard about this. The easiest solution is to treat the telepathic companion like any other character and raise him, her or it (depending on your preference) to the same level as anyone else, especially if the so-called bond is supposed to be the story’s gimmick.

To be honest, the only telepathic companion I’ve found who lives up to my standards is Loiosh, Taltos’ familiar in Steven Brust’s Taltos the Assassin novel series. Loiosh is the only, the ONLY Animal Companion in a supposedly equal relationship who:

*Has snarked at the human in a clever manner.

*Has shown lasting unhappiness at some of the decisions the human has made, and done something about it.

*Has said “no” to an outrageous demand made by the human.

*Has demanded time off for his honeymoon and to spend with his mate.

*Has actually had “thank you” said to it often by the human, and has had the human apologize to him for slights offered/being ignored/ being snapped at.

*Is a major player in the series as a whole, instead of being relegated to sidekick status or shoved out of view when not needed.

Ye gods, whenever I reread the books and compare them to some other “humans and his/her X” novels, it’s hard to wonder why is it so hard to treat characters as characters.


  1. Inspector Karamazov on 24 June 2009, 00:23 said:

    Good article. I find this rather annoying myself..

  2. SMARTALIENQT on 24 June 2009, 02:32 said:

    Awesome article. Very true, and addresses points rather overlooked in everything but children’s cartoons Arthur (where they have talking fleas, toads, dogs, cats, and babies, all existing in a plane where they can talk and big people speak mindless gibberish).

    All in all, an interesting and stimulating read, especially at 2:32 AM! Thank you!

  3. Steph the Squid on 24 June 2009, 06:01 said:

    I’ve found this annoying, too.

    Question: Tamora Pierce’s animals in The Immortals Quartet and Philip Pullman’s armoured bears. Are they badly done or aren’t they?

  4. Romantic Vampire Lover on 24 June 2009, 08:58 said:

    Nice lccorp2; very insightful. ;)

  5. SMARTALIENQT on 24 June 2009, 10:45 said:

    Tamora Pierce’s animals in The Immortals Quartet

    Sort of a mix, I should think. While she only uses mammals and occasionally birds, you have a sense of animal-ness that is taken away when she uses magic on them for too long. Brokefang dislikes this new knowledge, because before Daine, all he had to think about was eating, sleeping, and commanding the pack. Daine’s magic made him humanesque, allowing him to think about other animals and the futures.

    So, it’s good with the bad. (Although there is a definite Lassie moment in Page: “What is it, Lassie? Is it them Spidrens again?”)

  6. Puppet on 24 June 2009, 12:39 said:

    Amazing article. :)

  7. Lurker on 24 June 2009, 13:30 said:

    What was that thing in the Old Kingdom Trilogy again? The name escapes me. I think he was a cat. Anyway, I thought he was a very clever animal companion, as he was really a demon, trapped by the Abhorsen, and in the end was actually key to the protaganist’s victory.

    Oh, and hi. I’ve been lurking for a very, very, very long time.

  8. Luin Kaimelar on 24 June 2009, 15:07 said:

    Very good and informative. Reminds me of Limyaael’s rants.

  9. Witrin on 24 June 2009, 19:30 said:


    His name was the Mogget, or just plain Mogget, or Yrael.

  10. OverlordDan on 24 June 2009, 20:17 said:

    Great article :D

  11. Snow White Queen on 25 June 2009, 01:54 said:

    Nice article, Llcorp.

    I toyed around with including a ‘telepathic companion’ in the story I’m writing, but eventually dropped it. If I ever came back to it, however, at least I would have some things to think about.

    (Whoever mentioned the armored bears- the example from His Dark Materials that might be more analogous to what Llcorp’s referring to would be the daemons. At least, I think so.)

  12. Golcondio on 25 June 2009, 01:58 said:

    Great job, as always!
    I think a good example of man-animal bonding can be found in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogies: the relationship between Fitzchivalry and Nighteyes first starts by magic, but actually grows into actual love (no icky animal sex, of course: they’re both males, for FSM’s sake!!!).

  13. Vegtam on 25 June 2009, 09:35 said:

    Have you read the Obernewtyn Chronicles? Seriously good telepathic animals, actually done so as to seem animal-like in the way they’re presented. Isabelle Carmody explicityly states that the ability for a human to communicate with an anuimal isn’t about words at all, but flashes of images, memories, emoptions, sights, smells, and so on, that form general ideas.

    Also, the aniumals are some of the best and most interesting characters in the series. NOBODY does telepathic animal characters like Carmody, because each animal is treated as an important, individual character in its own right by the author.

    You make some great points, though, about a lot of the problems with the ‘animal companion’ trope.

  14. Vegtam on 25 June 2009, 09:42 said:

    Sorry about the spelling of the above; I probably shouldn’t have rushed it. Anyway, do please find a copy of The Obernewtyn Chronicles (I think it’s going into book 6 or something, but only the first 3 are really exciting). It is an excellent series, and the relationship between Elspeth and Maruman, and later on with the horse Gahltha are truly wonderful, even compared with inter-human characterisation. Gahltha the horse is definitely one of my favourite characters, and we actually see him grow as a character over time.

  15. Maje on 25 June 2009, 12:55 said:

    I think Moggett and the Disreputable Dog from the Abhorsen books were pretty good; they were great characters on their own rather than being the hero’s sidekick or pet. I thought the daemons and bears from Pullman’s books were good, too. In most stories, however, it does seem like animal companions are just there for the hero to have a best bud that won’t ever disagree with him/her.

  16. Kevin on 25 June 2009, 20:07 said:

    Nice article, lccorp. Extremely useful.

  17. falconempress on 26 June 2009, 03:13 said:

    I have been waiting so long for somebody to write this article. Thank you. I did not feel like I could pull it off, since I felt I have not read enough material on the matter to construct an informed opinion. And was the wait worth it? You pointed out clearly, in a rational and organized way, all that is wrong with “telepathic companions”. This article adresses all the important issues. Great job!

    You read “Dolphins of Pern” ? oh. My condolences.

    I remembered one thing when you discussed the fact that a telepathic companion is just a disguised human with powers and how they not at all act like, well, the animals they are. I recently read a few books in the series by Osanna Vaughn – it has only come out in German, not yet in English – but it deals with this fantasy world where falconers bond with their falcons at the hatching and the two have a telepathic connection, which allows the falconers to see through the falcons eyes and such. BUT:

    - the falcons remain falcons throughout the whole course of the story. First and foremost, they are birds, they are animals. Although they may be more intelligent than other animals, their reactions are limited to those a falcon would naturally have – they relate to the world through their instincts. They do not talk as such, the bond only allows the falconer to explore the birds emotions – and although they cannot talk to one another, this somehow makes the connection between the two even stronger. – very much like real falcons, these birds dont do anything they dont want to. They are stubborn, which, in my opinion, only adds to their character. – I was actually surprised you did not adress the age issue when it comes to telepathic companions – if you think about that, for most time, they are these ancient races which can live for centuries and centuries, or are even immortal, which then often translates, through the bond, to the human. Yes, i am looking at you, Inheritance. This I detest more than I can possibly express. However, Vaughns falcons only live their natural lifespan. And then they die. Which, again, is a great addition to the story, as you have broken, empty, ghastly men who once were falconers and could not deal with their falcons death wondering around. One of the plot twists in the books deals with the protagonists father, who has been missing for most of the protagonists life and when he shows up, twenty years later, turns out he has been looking for a way to expand his falcons life. And failed.

    I am sorry, I did not mean this as a promotion of this certain author, but reading your article made me remember all the things she did right in this field, which is something I have very rarely seen.

  18. UnrealCyn on 26 June 2009, 07:56 said:

    Another good article, man. This is my first post here, though I’ve been following the site since anti-shurtugal went through the eddoes. So, greetings folks.

    Anyway, on topic. I hate animal companions in fantasy in general – they always seemed a childish element to me, for pretty much the same reasons you just pointed out. Unless the whole story is about animals, I say leave them out. I have to agree that the Disreputable Dog (the Disreputable Bitch, if you want to get technical ;-) ) wasn’t very badly done; to be honest I really liked her. But that hasn’t happened often.

    On another note, I recently saw this story on the Strange Horizons e-zine. I was reading some of the excerpts from your Morally Ambiguous novel, and I was wondering if you and the guy that wrote this are the same person? Bless.

  19. DrAlligator on 26 June 2009, 14:36 said:

    Great stuff, Lccorp. Very informative, and I think this can be applied not only to telepathic companions but to companions/sidekicks in general. It made me think, “How would I go about making X a memorable character in his own right as opposed to ‘Friend of Y’?”

    Thanks. :)

  20. swenson on 26 June 2009, 18:51 said:

    Another great article! See, my big problem with talking/intelligent/whatever animals in any story (whether or not they’re bonded with anyone) is that they never act like animals and no one ever explores it from the other side. Like… what would a story be like if the main character was the non-human and the bonded creature was the human? Or what if not just animals bonded, so you had like an elf and a human bonded? Authors often seem to forget that the bonded character is supposed to be a character, too. If they really must make them less animal-like and more human-like, then try replacing their parts with a human and see if it still seems fair, you know?

  21. Jeni on 6 July 2009, 07:13 said:

    Bit late of a jump into this article, but thought I would anyway.

    I think it would have been equally helpful for you to show examples where telepathic, or anthromorphic, animals have been done well. Like Steph mentioned the armoured bears from HDM.

    When I saw the title of the article, Iorek was the one that first came to mind. Because I think he is a great example of a anthromorphic animal that still retains his bear identity.


    A while ago I was talking about HDM with someone, and they claimed that they didn’t like Iorek, and couldn’t treat him as being on the Right Side because of what he did to Lee Scoresby’s body. Namely that, after his death, he opened the corpse and ate his heart because he needed food. Iorek has absolutely no need to restrict himself to Western conventions, and I couldn’t understand why anyone could hate him for… well, for being what he is: a bear fer pete’s sake.

    The further message too, about Iofur losing his life because he had rejected the bear way of life and tried to become human, is an even more damning indictment against writers who seek to make Walking Talking Animals human.


  22. Anonymous45 on 10 July 2009, 12:19 said:

    You know this Iorek thing reminds me, I heard there were tribes in like Brazil who when they have people die, they don’t bury them like in the West. They eat them. And then destroy anything that carried memories associated with them (as a way of dealing with the grief). And I am totally serious.

  23. Corsair on 23 July 2009, 11:48 said:

    I’ve heard similar things. And as gross as it sounds to us Westerners, it makes good sense. It’s practical.

  24. Fauna on 16 August 2009, 15:15 said:

    I do think that in The City of Beasts the natives Alex and Nadia meet drink the dead people ashes. But that is neither here nor there.

    Neat article!

  25. Loni on 14 October 2009, 03:26 said:

    I always thought that Robin Hobb’s farseer books did this trope well. Other characters often impress on Fitz how much he has to consider Nighteyes’ needs – such as when he leaves to join the wild pack. And Fitz often has to cope with Nighteyes’ different views of things like sex.