Killing the cat

My main character, Raven, killed a cat. This took me by surprise. She had reasons for doing it, it wasn’t just a sudden whim, but nonetheless, as it all started to unfold I paused –

Hang on, are you really going to do this? Really?

I went and got a cup of tea and came back and there she was, still, with the ill-fated cat. With her reasons. Determined.

Well.

This has happened to me before. Characters take me places that I wasn’t expecting and those places are not always nice. Writing scenes like this makes me feel uncomfortable and uncertain.

I don’t want my characters to do things just for shock value. I don’t want them to do things because I’m bored or they’re bored and they want me to pay attention. When that happens I feel like the integrity of the character is broken. Their integrity comes from their actions being driven by forces within themselves, rather than them being moved around by me like jerky little puppets.

So when we reach this juncture, with the cat, I feel I need to know why: what is this character’s motivation? What deeper forces might be pushing her to act in this way?

A year or so ago, I wrote a messy first draft of a novel called This Skin (which I hope to come back to once I’ve finished my current novel). It is the story of the life-span of a romantic relationship from the alternating point of view of the two protagonists, Ash and Ben. Both these characters are flawed and broken in their own various ways, but as I was writing, I came to care about each of them. They were doing their best to make their lives work.

And then it happened – Ben cheated.

Writing the scene in which he slept with someone who wasn’t Ash was physically sickening for me. I didn’t want him to do it. I didn’t want to see it or feel it but I knew it had to happen. It was the reality of who he was, and it played a crucial part in how the story unfolded.

One of the qualities I see in some (though by no means all) writers I admire, and a quality which I feel I’m lacking, is a kind of coolness: an ability to observe and depict the reality of human behaviour.

I am an optimist by nature. I like to think the best of people. While I certainly don’t mind reading dark stories, I struggle to write characters who are cruel or vicious, even when they need to be. My bad guys tend to end up being all soft and squishy on the inside.

But who wants to read a story where people sit around and drink tea and ask, with no motivation other than genuine concern, about how each other’s day has been, and really listen to the answer?

Interest comes from conflict: from the play of external pressures and threats, and the inner tension of characters doing things they know are wrong, or risky, but to which they are compelled, for whatever reason.

Life is full of conflicts – big ones, small ones. The choices we make over time define us. At one point or another we all act in ways we wish we hadn’t. We do things that can’t be taken back and we live with the consequences.

So tell me. Have any of your characters killed a cat recently? How do you react when a good character you’re writing about does bad things?

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