Cats, owls, rats, and various other creatures have appeared in novels and stories as magical companions. You might even slide spirit animals under this definition, for the sake of fantasy worldbuilding.
In our world, the term comes from the belief that a witch would have a spirit being to aid them. In many cases, the familiar spirit would take the form of an animal.
Familiars can serve many purposes within a story. They may be a magical conduit for your practitioner. A familiar may also be a source of knowledge, or they may work as a spy for their owner. The logistics of these situations will depend on if a familiar is visible to others, or just to their owners.
The acquiring of a familiar can play many different roles in a fantasy world. It may be part of a coming of age ceremony, especially in a culture that values magic users. A familiar might be assigned to a magic user either upon birth, or when the character first begins to use magic, regardless of age.
Familiars can be anything. Just because cats and owls have been the traditional ones doesn’t mean you have to stick to those. Make up a creature (this is fantasy, after all!), or go for something unusual, like a centipede. (Or not, hah!)
- Do magic users (or only some magic users) require familiars in your world? Why?
- What benefits do familiars offer for your magic system? What hindrances?
- Who are familiars visible to? Everyone? Magic users only? Or even only visible to the familiar’s owner?
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Rebekah Loper began creating epic worlds and stories as a child and never stopped. She is the author of The A-Zs of Worldbuilding series, and has a fantasy novella published in Beatitudes and Woes: A Speculative Fiction Anthology.
She lives in Tulsa, OK with her husband, dog, two formerly feral cats, a small flock of feathered dragons (…ok, ok, they’re chickens), and an extensive tea collection. When she is not writing, she can be found battling the elements in an effort to create a productive, permaculture urban homestead.
I hav enever really used the idea of the ‘familiar’ in my stories, though I have indeed use other kinds of animal companions. But normally they are not subject to a magic user, they are more like friends: they choose to be bound to someone.
I really only have one story that has a familiar-type concept in it, and I haven’t yet decided if they’re truly familiars or just a manifestation of the character’s magic.
Ooooh, familiars! I somewhat overlook this aspect of magic systems for some reason – maybe because I’m not a fan of traditional approach (owls, cats, and so on). Thank you for reminding me they could be so much more!
Though in one of my early novels, in a life threatening situation a witch-in-denial ends up summoning a familiar: a dog-like creature (well, it looks more like local monsters, but she claims it’s an ugly dog) that becomes dead-bound to protect her (his idea of protection is “let’s just kill everyone”), never spares a snarky comment, and doesn’t mind on chewing on dead bodies. It was fun to write him. 🙂
That sounds like a fantastically fun ‘familiar’ to write!
First of all, apologies for a late response – life pretty much swallowed me whole, and I’m only now recovering.
And it was! I miss him greatly, but the story would need too much work to make it good.
Believe me, I understand about life swallowing you whole! It’s usually why I disappear from blogging/social media for great chunks of time without notice. >_>
Maybe you’ll be able to work him into a different story along the way somewhere. I’ve found many times that an element/character I love but just CAN’T work into a story usually fits better somewhere else eventually.
I’m really enjoying your posts. Familiars play a large role in the Harry Potter series with Harry’s owl, Hedwig, Hermione’s cat’ Crookshanks, and Ron’s rat, Scabbers. Not forgetting everyone’s Patronus!
Harry Potter is very full of examples of familiars, for sure!
Glad you’re enjoying the series, Duncan!