Character Development:
Cats Can Speak Volumes

I should be the last person to recommend getting a cat. I prefer dogs. But I’ve learned a lot from these arrogant, self-centered creatures. So can you.

by Hyphenman on Mar 20, 2013

Every book and article I’ve read on character development follows more or less the same pattern. They give you a checklist, a series of questions to ask, and launch into some theory or other about the hero’s journey. The deeper they delve into theory, the further away they get from reality.

Hardly any of them suggest sitting in a Starbucks and watching real people doing real things. If you want to theorize, it seems to me that’s the place to do it. Is the subject of your study happy, sad, forlorn, bereft, morose, ecstatic, or what? Why do you think so?

An even better way is to get a cat. Or to watch the one you’ve already got.

I personally harbor a distaste for these smug animals. What some admire as their
unshakable independence, I see as unmitigated arrogance. They are a poor substitute for a dog, which is far closer to humans in communication and reaction. But my living conditions have never allowed a dog so I’ve been forced to settle on caring for various stray cats, which I’ve done for more than 20 years, I’m sad to say.

I’ve learned a lot from these animals, not that they’ve obligingly imparted it to me.

If you’re a die-hard cat lover, you probably shouldn’t read this. You’re more than likely beyond help, ascribing endearing qualities to your pet that it simply doesn’t have.

My disdain for cats makes me objective. Well, somewhat. I’ve experienced [CONTINUED] most of what the true cat lover has: I’ve petted cats and played with them, I’ve taken them to the vet for shots and treatment, I’ve bought toys that they’ve ignored, I’ve switched cat foods when they’ve turned up their noses at one, and I’ve found dead birds on my doorstep. I also ran over one with my car, though I’m convinced that it was already dead. Worst of all, I took a sickly, mangy, limping one to the vet to be put down, one of the most gut-wrenching experiences of my life.

So, yes, cats have made me laugh, and they’ve made me cry. Dammit.

What I’ve learned is that cats, like dogs and horses and most other living creatures, have very distinctive personalities. That’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation, but it can be very illuminating to a writer of fiction.

Cats don’t and can’t think, at least not in the way humans do. That’s because their language is not one of words. Unlike dogs, they recognize no words, only sounds, tones, and gestures. To picture what that must be like, think of the blind and deaf Helen Keller before Anne Sullivan came into her life and worked her miracle, showing her the connection between words and objects.

Cats act on instinct. The connections they make are based on experience, what happened before in the same or similar circumstance.

And yet they are able to bridge the gap between their species and ours. They can communicate with us. We know from their body language and their faces what mood they are in and what they want. They tell us when they are hungry, when they want to go outside, when they want attention, when they want to be left alone, when they are happy, when they are angry, when they are injured, when they are excited.

Therein lies the lesson for writers.

Cats have no long-range mission. All their goals are immediate and visceral: to be fed, to find a comfortable place to sleep, to get attention. There is no inner turmoil or reluctance to accept the mission or obstacles to overcome or secondary conflict. Yet they most definitely are full-bodied characters, replete with wants and desires, subject to mood swings, and acting at times as unpredictably as any human. If you don’t think so, you don’t know cats.

Deprived of words, cats communicate with actions and expressions. And with that pronounced limitation, they are able to convey a whole range of emotions.

That’s the key, I think, to developing characters that are real rather than theoretical. It can steer us away from the traps of “talking heads,” long, rambling monologues, artificial conflicts, and much, much more.

It’s easy to get lost in the abyss of advice on character development. All you need to remember is that actions speak louder than words. Try, for example, shutting your character’s mouth and substituting the reactions of a cat.

And I’m happy to tell you that I wrote this whole article without once resorting to the tiresome pun of “purr-fect,” even though I was tempted.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John Hopkins March 27, 2013 at 8:38 pm

When I notice a cat’s steady gaze, I can imagine the beast deciding how best to do away with me once the felines take over the world. Then again, when our cat Smoky climbs onto my lap I assume that she wants a scratching or some other touch of comfort. She surely wants something, for she climbs up my chest, thrusts her face into mine and starts to knead with her claws. An anthropologist would tell you that she’s signaling hunger — but this is usually happening an hour after feeding.


2 Hyphenman March 28, 2013 at 2:48 am

Yes, cats can indeed be weird and unfathomable — just like humans. And the silent stare treatment can serve a writer well, conjuring up anything from fear and apprehension to terror and mystery. Applied to a story, we learn more about the object of the stare than we do about the source of it.


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