Friday, April 22, 2011

Cats and Character: Telling Your Characters Apart

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Two of my cats are red tabbies who look identical if you don't know them. It often takes a guest three or four visits before they realize we have two of them and they aren't the same cat, even though they're as different as night and day personality wise. What does this have to do with characters? You can learn a lot about creating characters from my cats.

Throwaway Characters
At first glance the cats look the same. Red fur, long and skinny, short hair, similar weight. This is what first-time guests remember after they leave my house. "They have cats." They might remember how many (minus one) and they might remember the colors.

This is what your throwaway characters are like. The waiters and guardsmen and walk on characters that have to do something like serve food or glare menacingly, but we all know they'll never been seen again. They don't have to be remembered. We don't need to know much more than what role they play. Knowing more can actually make a reader think they'll be important and try to remember them.

Minor Characters
Occasional visitors realize that Darwin is the older and bigger cat. His eyes are yellow with white fur around the rims, and his face is square. Puck is the baby of the group. He's smaller when you see them side by side. His eyes are red, no white rims, and his face is long and pointed. He has some Siamese in his genes somewhere.

These are the characters you want readers to remember a little, but they really aren't important to the overall story. They have names, and serve a purpose in a particular scene, and you have to describe them a little to keep the action straight. But once they're gone, they probably won't be back. You give them just enough to tell them apart from the other people in the scene. They're there more more color and style and world building than substance.

Secondary Characters
Regular visitors find out fast that Darwin is a chatterbox, while Puck rarely says a word. Darwin often walks around with his tailed curled in a curly cue, Puck holds his almost parallel to his back, and the vet thought he'd broken it the first time he saw him as a kitten. Darwin's favorite toy is a felt ribbon on a stick, Puck's is a stuffed fox that is missing most of it's fur and is torn in several places. Both cats will bring the toys to you when they get bored and want to play. Darwin will meow while he drags his stick around the house looking for you. Puck will just drop it in your lap or fling it at your head.

These are your secondary characters and the ones seen most often hanging around your main characters. Readers know what they look like, their quirks, some unique details (often called tags) to distinguish them from the other characters. They remember these guys even after they read the book. They know some of their history, but nothing in depth. Just enough to know why they're helping/not helping the protagonist and to get a feel for their motivations.

Main Characters
Those who live in my house can tell you both cats were rescues. Darwin is a mama's boy and will curl up in my lap any chance he gets. Puck loves my husband best and hangs around him all the time. Darwin doesn't like to be petted unless he's in the mood, Puck can be carried around the house with no trouble. Darwin is agile and a great jumper. Puck has trouble jumping and studies each jump carefully. Darwin steps so lightly you barely know he's there, even when he jumps on the bed. Puck bounds instead of walks and you'd swear he weighed three times what he does. Darwin will run to me for protection when the other cats are pestering him. Puck makes a beeline for the patio when he hears the back door open.

This is your main character (or characters). Readers know all about them. What they look like, how they feel about things, their quirks, their skills, their flaws. They can anticipate their actions and worry about what they'll do in any given situation. They love them unconditionally and remember them long after the book is through. These characters have contradictions and are often their own worst enemies to getting what they want. We can tell who they are just by reading their dialog or internalization, even if no name is mentioned.

When a reader picks up your book, it's like having people over for a visit. How you want those characters to be remembered can give you insight on how much you need to reveal about them.

Which characters in your book are drop-by-guests, and which are friends for life? 


  1. Wow. This is a great example for me. I have two cats as well. In fact, one of them is a grey tabby which originally looked identical to our old family pet who died a few years ago. Now that I've had her for so long I don't even see the resemblance anymore.

    The other part is the friends coming to visit. It's funny because everyone who comes over, regardless of how many times, always confuse the two cats sex. It's something that baffles me because it is so completely obvious which one's the boy and which is the girl. Of course, I understand the confusion. The boy has beautiful long golden blond fur, while the girl has short grey fur.

    It's definitely interesting how you can see the characteristics and how your perception of them change over time after getting to know the individual. It's a very good analogy for characters in a story.

  2. That's a fantastic analogy for characters - loved it!

  3. Thanks all!

    Colin, we only have one girl cat, but she's the biggest and the most outgoing (and demanding) and everyone always calls her a him. She's our tomboy cat!

  4. Wow, what a great way to incorporate your cats into writing! This is a great analogy!

    As a writer, how do you know what is a throwaway character and what will eventually become an important one?

  5. This is lovely, Janice. Adorable.

  6. This was a great post! Just what I needed for a couple of my characters-to make them stand out more or step back into the background.

  7. Great post. It's nice to put my characters into a category!

  8. I love this post. The analogy is refreshing. I have an overweight long-haired orange Tabby whose name is Darwin. He's about 12 years old now.

  9. I chuckled all throughout reading this. It's a fantastic analogy!

    My family's had several cats through the years, even one that would say "Uh-oh" when she was in trouble. (And only then.)

    The curled tail sounds like somebody's on the bottom of the pecking order.

  10. This is an awesome example and I can relate to the analogy. I already understood that basic text book difference between the various types of fictional characters, but you did an excellent job of showing me exactly how to transfer what I know to my novel. You demonstrated the importance of showing versus telling. Your example will stay with me. I like how you compared characters to our different houseguest.

    Great post.

    Have a Happy Easter.

  11. What a great analogy! Tabby cats are my favorite, so much so I will now make a shameless plug for my upcoming book in which the main character is a tabby cat.

    Guardian Cats and the Lost Books of Alexandria, out this summer.

    Love your post and your blog.

  12. This is a great little introduction to character. I'm in the process of putting together a creative writing course - would you mind if I were to distribute this page to students?

  13. Great points :) Thank you for the post and examples

  14. Amelia: Thanks, glad to heart it ;)

    Las Vegas Writer: Thanks!

    MDK: Oh so that's cool. I've never met another Darwin :)

    Carradee: That's so cute! Darwin does get picked on, but even as a kitten (when he was the terror of the house) he did the tail thing. He's the most timid of the gang though, so it might be that.

    Sugar Scribes: Thanks!

    Rahma: Ooo sounds Egyptian. I'll have to keep an eye out for that. And thanks!

    Jaque: Feel free, just please give me a credit and the blog address :)

    Jacqven: Most welcome!

  15. Your cats really looks wonderful and health, thank you very much for sharing these tips as well.
    dog boarding long island

  16. I love the ananlogy with your cats! I really do need to work on giving my secondary characters more depth I think.

  17. Maurice, most welcome! They're happy little guys.

    Rinelle, your secondaries can really add a lot to the story. If you know what their goals are and what they want, you can use them to create tension and conflict, or to discuss an opposing viewpoint.