Remember Behemot? The big, black cat in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov? I do, even though I read the book as a teenager and a good few years have passed, how many I will not reveal, because real ladies never do, and I am one.
Back to the big, black cat, who walked on his hind legs, tried to board a tram in Moscow - offering to pay the due fare - and when rejected, boarded the tram by latching its paws on a back window’s pipe: his humanisation is simply delicious. It’s described as a cat, but its characterisation is strong and powerful, vivid and tremendous.
And remember Professor Minerva McGonagall in the first of the Harry Potter books? She turns into a cat to better look over baby Harry as he is delivered to his odious relatives for safety. As a feline she proves a less devious and unsettling character than in Bulgakov, but still catches the attention of Harry’s bad uncle, staring at her from his window.
As a budding writer I wonder at the ability of writers to define and develop strong characters who are not human. It takes, firstly, some wild imagination. Stating the obvious, this is a useful weapon in the arsenal of writers. Secondly, it takes skill. Humanising animals in stories isn’t as easy as it seems. There are restrictions to the usual tools a writer relies on when dealing with humans. For starters there are no facial expressions of note. Sure, cats’ stare can be pretty intense, but cats can’t smile, or smirk, or turn their mouth sour, nor can they frown, or look preoccupied, or again excited, unless of course we are talking animated scripts, but this is not what this post is about.
I have a cat too, a rescue cat. I’m glad to say that he’s not the size of a pig, as in Bulgakov’s case! I observe his behaviour and wonder how much I’m learning from him as a beginner writer. I love the consistency of sounds he makes to ask for his desires to be met, pronto! (Heard of the saying: dogs have owners; cats have personnel?)
Take the husky rasp he breathes when he wants you to open the door and let him out…to avoid using the cat flap. I can picture an old man leaving the house direction nearest bar, dismissing his wife, who’s nagging him to stay sober.
Take the single high pitched alarm-like meowing announcing that he’s back home, more like a sheep’s harrowing bleat than anything feline (hats off to his lungs’ power). Can you not picture the same old man returning from the bar, far from sober?
Or the whining and pitiful and tiniest of sounds in the morning wanting to be fed. Now, that’s the sound you’d associate with a normal cat! Picture the old man, again, this time in pain in the morning, nursing a hangover.
If this is not a lesson in what voice to give characters (human!) in your books, I don’t know what is. Consistency is the key, I guess. I.e., I wouldn’t understand my cat’s desires if he changed the pitch and tone of his meowing each time. But he doesn’t, and that’s how he gets me to obey each and every one of his selfish asks.
There will be a number of cat lovers amongst my patient and kind blogging friends who will have to agree: who needs a writing course when you’ve got a cat?
Have you ever looked at your pet and thought: I can learn a thing or two from you! Show me that little sound again you do when you want to be left alone? No, not the scratching!
A few WordPress posts on Bulgakov and Professor McGonagoll, if of interest:
- Only The Devil Knows What This Story’s About: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (rhapsodistreviews.wordpress.com)
- Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Animated in Two Minutes (openculture.com)
- Quote for Today: Mikhail Bulgakov (synkroniciti.com)
- Describing Russian intellectual life in fiction (rbth.ru)
- Minerva McGonagall (parentingharry.wordpress.com)