Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What My Cat Taught Me About Characterization

By Corinne Duyvis, @corinneduyvis

Part of the How They Do It Series

Writers are always looking for new and fun ways to create characters, and sometimes you find the perfect tip in the most unlikely of places. Please help me welcome Corinne Duyvis to the lecture hall today to share how a fuzzy little feline helped her find her characters.

A lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative young adult and middle grade novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, released from Amulet Books/ABRAMS in the summer of 2014. It has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and the Bulletin. Kirkus called it "original and compelling; a stunning debut," while the Bulletin praised its "subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege."

Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound

Take it away Corinne...

When figuring out elements of characterization, it helps to have concrete examples. Sometimes it’s good to see a character built from the ground up; today, I’m going to work backward from an existing character.

The character I chose is my cat.

I’m an analytical kind of person, you see. It’s not enough for me to adore my cat—I want to know why. In this case, the “why” left me with various interesting lessons about likeable characterization. So let’s pinpoint precisely why she’s such an endearing creature …

… aside from the obvious.


When looked for a cat to adopt, I had only one requirement: I wanted a cat I could help. Living alone, working at home, and having experience with cats meant I was perfectly suited to a project.

When I met Terra at the shelter, she was instantly terrified. The volunteers told me she’d been brought in because she was scared of the other cats she’d used to live with. She’d been at the shelter for a month or two before getting adopted.

Her new owners returned her within two weeks. She wasn’t “fun” enough.

The moment Terra saw me, she pressed herself against the back of the wall, making herself as small as possible. She fled into a different box when I moved to open her cage. She had to keep me in her sights, though, so she stayed near the edge of the box, peering out with a single, huge eye.

When I reached out to touch her, she cringed.

Then—hesitantly, slowly—she started to purr.

She went back home with me that afternoon. In that same box.

This backstory featured likeable goals on my end, a tragedy on her end, and an endearing meeting between the both of us. You’re probably at least a little sympathetic toward us now. Don’t milk tragic backstory to score likeability points, but be aware of its effects.


Terra is a snuggly, content little ball of fur.

Until guests arrive. She’ll lie flat next to the couch armrest, just the top of her head peeking out to gauge the situation.

If it’s someone calm, Terra may allow the occasional careful snuggle. She still won’t approach on her own, though—she’ll stay at a distance, hiding in a nook she normally never comes near.

If it’s someone loud, forget it. Terra will dive into the bathroom and not come out until the big scary voice is gone.

People—and cats—change depending where they are or who they’re with. I always wonder how a situation or character will change my protagonist’s behavior, and whether it’s obvious enough for people around them to notice. These details can make a character three-dimensional and believable.

So That's Why! 

One of the downsides of adopting cats is that you don’t always know their backstory. There were all kinds of unusual things about Terra’s behavior: her nighttime wailing, how sudden movements freak her out, how she’s jumpy when approached unless I speak to her …

The puzzle pieces clicked: Terra is practically blind. It’s not the only thing contributing to her behavior, as we’re certain something traumatized her, but it explains a lot of her skittishness. We were beyond relieved when we finally figured it out.

If your character behaves unusually, make sure you know why, and vice versa. Connect these aspects. For a reader, there is something monumentally satisfying about having things fall into place.

Old Habits Are Hard to Kill 

Terra has lived with me for over a year. Even after all this time, she dashes out of the way when I walk past her. She still runs when I approach her while talking on the phone.

By now, we adore each other, and she knows I won’t hurt her. But those habits? They die hard. I try to keep in mind my character’s history and its lasting effects, even if it no longer seems applicable.

Weakest and Strongest 

I have seen Terra cower in a corner when my family visited during my birthday. Pressing her belly against the floor, ears flat, huge eyes. A drawn-out, terrified mewl.

I have also seen her walk onto my balcony for the very first time—her eyes wide, her steps cautious. She walked to the railing and stared down at the street in utter wonder.

And I’ve seen her stand on the couch when two unfamiliar cats invaded her territory. She didn’t back off. She didn’t hide. She stood there, she watched them, and when they came too close, she held them off with a hiss and a single raised paw.

Pushing a character to their limits allows a writer to surprise the reader. If you’ve established the character well enough, these situations will make the reader want to protect them, smile at the character’s discoveries, or cheer at the top of their lungs.

And Her Worst

Over a year after I adopted Terra, my mother had to transport her. As soon as Terra saw the cat carrier, she panicked. She scratched my mom’s arms. She bit both her hands, then dove under the couch and could not be moved by any force known to mankind. My mother’s arms dripped with blood. One of the bites got infected—red, swollen, the skin stretched taut. My mom could barely move it for a week.

If this had happened at the beginning, it would’ve thrown both of us for a loop. But: Terra’s been with us long enough that my mom shrugged it off instantly.

Don’t worry about showing your character at her worst. But establish your character well enough that people will understand.


What unfailingly makes me smile: Terra in happy, cuddly bliss. Terra playing with something. Terra exploring the balcony. Terra goofing off. But it’s not just Terra—it’s any cat, even ones I’m not familiar with. Judging by the wealth of cat photos on the internet, I’m not alone.

As I mentioned, I’m an analytical kind of person. I wondered why this causes such a burst of affection. It’s pretty straightforward: it’s so important for a character to show affection, enjoyment, or passion. They don’t have to be mushy about it, and a character can be the most off-putting, caustic jerk possible ... but damn if just plain liking something doesn’t make a character instantly more likeable in return.

Outward Appearance 

When building your character, consider all options. Go beyond eye color, go beyond traumatic backstory, go beyond clothing style, and ask yourself the following important question: can they be soft and fuzzy?

It helps, that's all I have to say.

About Otherbound

Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea . . . until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound


  1. You really make me like Terra. :) (But I'm already a softy when it comes to cats.) It's so true that people act differently around different people, but that's a hard one to portray in fiction (at least for me.)

    When you mentioned that even a caustic jerk of a character should have affection for someone or something (well, that's not an exact quote) I thought of Sherlock and John. There's a reason Sherlock has (a single) friend, and it's not just to narrate his adventures. :)

  2. Great summary. And just like a story itself, it drops us into the middle of the character, and slowly shows us the background, the lows, and the highs.

    This goes straight into my "BESTs" file for RTs and recommendations. Thank you, Corrinne!

  3. Nice post, I'll have to add "Cat study" to my list of writing requirements. JK--enjoyed the comparisons.

  4. Love this post -- and not just because I'm a cat person myself :) Fantastic analogies for learning more about characters. Thanks for the great tips!

  5. Terra sounds like a wonderful companion and you two are lucky to have found each other! I am a cat person 100% though my poor cats have been neglected since I had kids, poor things.

    Your book also sounds fantastic! Such an original idea. Can't wait to check it out.

  6. Great ideas! I say whatever it takes to write that One Hundred Forty Thousand words in the first place... Then do it all over again, and again.... Thank you Corinne Duyvis my Main Coons deserve some credit but I'm not going to tell them :)