Ernest Hemingway’s slim, 1,140-word short story “Cat in the Rain”—based on a true-life event and inspired by it-actually-happened dialogue—helps us think about one of the central questions of our writing: how to create character.
Do we pull characters from real life, or invent them out of whole cloth. Do we lead our characters through the story, or do we allow them to lead us. What kind of a dance is it, this creating (or discovering) of character?
Solutions and styles range all over the literary map. If you ask a thousand different writers, you will get a thousand different answers.
For example, Vladimir Nabokov said: “my characters are galley slaves”—meaning, they did what he wanted them to do.
Mario Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, says that “you can’t mold characters” (italics mine.) And Andre Dubus famously believed that only by letting go of all control of your characters would they emerge.
Erskine Caldwell described his process like this: “I have no influence over them. I’m only an observer, recording. The story is always being told by the characters themselves. In fact, I’m often critical, or maybe ashamed, of what some of them say and do—their profanity or their immorality. But I have no control over it.”
Bernard Malamud found a place in the middle, “My characters run away, but not far.”
Or, as expanded upon by Robert Stone, “You construct characters and set them going in their own interior landscape, and what they find to talk about and what confronts them are, of course, the things that concern you most.”
So the process of creating character—whether we control them through the story from start to finish, or simply observe them and record their behavior (or are these even the same thing, since we are, in the end, the ones who decide what to record and what not to?)— depends upon ourselves as individual writers, and finding what process works best for us, personally.
For instance, some writers write long backstories of their characters in journals or notebooks, so that they know every aspect of the character they are writing. Others only know whatever they write on the page: that a character picked up a chipped cup, and drank the hot tea so quickly she burned her tongue, for instance.
Kahini Magazine el Similarly, when it comes to finding character in the first place: do we draw on elements of real people we know, create entirely new characters, or some mixture of both?
From Graham Greene: “One never knows enough about characters in real life to put them into novels. One gets started and then, suddenly, one can not remember what toothpaste they use; what are their views on interior decoration, and one is stuck utterly. No, major characters emerge; minor ones may be photographed.”
From Maya Angelou: “Sometimes I make a character from a composite of three or four people, because the essence in any one person is not sufficiently strong to be written about.”
Or Ernest Hemingway, responding to a Paris Review question about whether characters are taking from real life: “Of course they are not. Some come from real life. Mostly you invent people from a knowledge and understanding and experience of people.”
What is the inspiration of our characters? How do we go from inspiration to characters that are real on the page?
We know that characters can be created from one person (Hester Prynne was based on a real-world counterpart, for example) or from three or four or a dozen people, or invented completely.
We also know that characters can be created by controlling them through the story, as in the work of Toni Morrison. We know that characters can be created by allowing them to control the story themselves, with us following behind.
Whatever our process, how do we know when the character has fully come to life, in our story?
Through character action, character dialogue, and character description.
Hemingway’s story “Cat in the Rain” was inspired by a real-life incident with his real-life wife, Hadley. They lived in Paris, at the time, and Hadley wanted a cat, but Ernest felt they were too poor. During a visit to Italy in 1923, Hadley spotted a stray kitten hiding under a table in the rain, and said, “I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun I can have a cat.”
The resulting story, “Cat in the Rain” was one of the stories of the collection “In Our Time”—dedicated to Hadley—which came out in Paris in March of 1924.
Character emerges—what a wonderful word that Graham Greene used—in this story through the slow accumulation of detail, and what is not included: the details omitted through Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” of omission. (“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them,” he wrote, in “Death in the Afternoon.” The dignity of movement of an ice- berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”)
Kahini Magazine el The story opens: “There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel.”
This external authorial voice locates us, in nine words, with the transitory nature of the two main characters, and that they are in a culture not their own.
The first line, sentence, or paragraph of a work of art—especially one as short as “Cat in the Rain”—often teaches us how to read what follows. As Gabriel García Márquez noted, “I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.”
While many writers, unlike García Márquez, don’t necessarily start the process with the first paragraph (for many writers, the opening is the last thing that they write), they are obviously the first words that a reader encounters, and therefore carry much of the contextualizing weight of the story:
“They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room,” the story continues. “Their room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also faced the public garden and the war monument. There were big palms and green benches in the public garden. In the good weather there was always an artist with his easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea. Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the cafe a waiter stood looking out of the empty square.”
The opening continues in the vein of the external third-person authorial voice, who declines to enter at this point the consciousness of either of the characters. We are located not only in a specific time and place, but the weather of the rain serves as an additional pressure that will force the two American characters to have to spend time with one another: yet even now, they don’t. The woman looks out of the window, away from the husband; the husband opens a book:
“The American wife stood at the window looking out. Outside right under their window a cat was crouched under one of the dripping green tables. The cat was trying to make herself so compact that she would not be dripped on. ‘I’m going down and get that kitty,’ the American wife said. ‘I’ll do it,’ her husband offered from the bed. ‘No, I’ll get it. The poor kitty out trying to keep dry under a table.’ The husband went on reading, lying propped up with the two pillows at the foot of the bed. ‘Don’t get wet,’ he said.
As we’ve noted, character is created through three things: easily remembered through the acronym A.D.D: action, description, and dialogue. Kahini Magazine el
We see character through action. (What do they do?)
We see character through description. (What do they look like? How do they dress or maintain their bodies? This was much more frequently used in nineteenth-century novels: contemporary writers, particularly short story writers, attempt to paint character in as few paint-strokes as possible.)
And we see character through dialogue. (What do they say?)
Let’s look at this scene again, with this in mind: “The American wife stood at the window looking out. Outside right under their window a cat was crouched under one of the dripping green tables. The cat was trying to make herself so compact that she would not be dripped on. ‘I’m going down and get that kitty,’ the American wife said. ‘I’ll do it,’ her husband offered from the bed. ‘No, I’ll get it. The poor kitty out trying to keep dry under a table.’ The husband went on reading, lying propped up with the two pillows at the foot of the bed. ‘Don’t get wet,’ he said.
Crucially, and going by the theory of omission, the writer isn’t revealing everything. Many, many, many discussions of this story center around the husband’s constant position on the bed, and how it shows his lack of care for his wife. Maybe. One of the many beauties of literary fiction is that we don’t know. We get glimpses. We get just enough to have our interest piqued, and this tension and conflict are what pull us through the story. Why does the woman want the cat so intensely? Why does the husband just stay there. Why does Ahab pursue the whale. Why does Paul D sleep with Beloved? We want to know, and that wanting keeps us reading. Sometimes we find out, sometimes we don’t—and sometimes the characters don’t even know, themselves.
Looking at character through action: “The American wife stood at the window looking out.” In this room, in this moment, she isn’t content to sit and read. Maybe she is in other times, but right now, she is looking for something beyond the room.
Looking at character through dialogue: “I’m going down and get that kitty.” The ungrammatical construction here could be giving us information about her education level or regional background. It could be giving us information about her excitement—when we speak in a rush, we often speak colloquially.
Looking at character through dialogue: “I’ll do it,” the husband offered from the bed. We know that he won’t do it. We hear the insincerity and the flatness in his voice, and from this we can see his character in this moment emerge.
Looking at character through dialogue: “No, I’ll get it. The poor kitty out trying to keep dry under a table.” She, for her part, emphasizes the cat; he hasn’t said anything about it. His response is only geared around her, telling her what she wants to hear. Her response is only geared around the cat, and the rain. All this dialogue shows their character—perhaps not Kahini Magazine el their overall character, but their character in this moment, in this hotel room, with the rain falling outside.
Looking at character through action: “The husband went on reading, lying propped up with the two pillows at the foot of the bed.” We see his lack of interest in this aspect of his wife’s interior life.
The woman goes downstairs, and we further see her character emerge through dialogue. “Il piove,” the wife says to the hotel-keeper. (The rain.) We see a character, a tourist, willing to speak Italian, albeit basic, simple Italian. This simple, two-word line of dialogue presents her as someone who is willing to step outside her comfort zone, willing to make mistakes, willing to try to connect.
“Si, si, Signora, brutto tempo. It is very bad weather.” The hotel-keeper responds to her in Italian, but then switches over to her language, English, showing us again her level of Italian. This moment of dialogue reveals his willingness to meet her where she is, allowing his own character to emerge. Is it real friendliness or simply performing his job duties? Or both? As in real life, we don’t really know, but we can observe it happening, and feel his character through his dialogue.
Another element of character to consider in our descriptions, in their actions, and in their dialogue (whether or not we feel we are creating character or simply noticing it): what are our characters running from? What are they running toward?
People tend to pursue pleasure, and avoid pain. It’s what we are, as a species. We make our decisions focused on both short- and long-term pain and pleasure, however we interpret that for ourselves in a given moment.
Anne Lamott, in her book “Bird by Bird,” describes realizing that the fears she was giving one of her fictional characters were her own fears, and how that particular character didn’t come to life until she listened to what he was afraid of. What were the things that were driving him, whether consciously or subconsciously.
We may or may not know these things (again, you might be the kind of writer who knows everything about your character, or you might be the kind of writer who only knows what is on the page) but we need to listen for them, in our writing.
From “Cat in the Rain”:
“With the maid holding the umbrella over her, she walked along the gravel path until she was under their window. The table was there, washed bright green in the rain, but the cat was gone. She was suddenly disappointed.”
There are reasons that the woman wants to find the cat. And hundreds and hundreds of articles have been written on this story, attempting to explicate why. But as writers we’re more interested in how this character is created. The character (the woman) wants something (the cat) but an obstacle surfaces (the cat is now gone.) This character + want + obstacle formula creates tension, and reveals character. Kahini Magazine el
Or to say it another way, she is going “toward” something (the cat) and away from something (the husband) in this moment. Is she unhappy in her marriage? Is she simply bored? We keep reading, because of the tension between what we know and what we don’t know.
Later in the story:
“They went back along the gravel path and passed in the door. The maid stayed outside to close the umbrella. As the American girl passed the office, the padrone bowed from his desk. Something felt very small and tight inside the girl. The padrone made her feel very small and at the same time really important. She had a momentary feeling of being of supreme importance.”
This seems to violate the “show don’t tell” rule in writing, but we’ve seen how “telling” can be very important in a story. We are being told how she felt, but this telling allows us to learn more about her, and, crucially, we’re not necessarily told why she felt “small and at the same time really important,” only that she does feel so, in a way she doesn’t feel in the marriage.
“She went on up the stairs. She opened the door of the room. George was on the bed, reading. ‘Did you get the cat?’ he asked, putting the book down. ‘It was gone.’ ‘Wonder where it went to,’ he said, resting his eyes from reading. She sat down on the bed. ‘I wanted it so much,” she said. ‘I don’t know why I wanted it so much. I wanted that poor kitty. It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.’ George was reading again.
Character here is revealed through dialogue. We see the (now named) husband both setting down his book and then returning to it. We see her sitting down on the bed, in an attempt— we can guess—to be closer to him, and attempting to connect with him through talking (“I wanted it so much,” she said. “I don’t know why I wanted it so much. I wanted that poor kitty. It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.”) We see the husband’s lack of interest in what she has to say—but we don’t know why. Is this a pattern in their relationship? Did they have a fight earlier that day? We don’t know: all we know is what is in front of us.
She continues to attempt to connect:
“She went over and sat in front of the mirror of the dressing table looking at herself with the hand glass. She studied her profile, first one side and then the other. Then she studied the back of her head and her neck. ‘Don’t you think it would be a good idea if I let my hair grow out?’ she asked, looking at her profile again. George looked up and saw the back of her neck, clipped close like a boy’s. ‘I like it the way it is. Kahini Magazine el ‘I get so tired of it,’ she said. ‘I get so tired of looking like a boy.’ George shifted his position in the bed. He hadn’t looked away from her since she started to speak. ‘You look pretty darn nice,’ he said. She laid the mirror down on the dresser and went over to the window and looked out. It was getting dark. ‘I want to pull my hair back tight and smooth and make a big knot at the back that I can feel,’ she said. ‘I want to have a kitty to sit on my lap and purr when I stroke her.’ ‘Yeah?’ George said from the bed. ‘And I want to eat at a table with my own silver and I want candles. And I want it to be spring and I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes.’ ‘Oh, shut up and get something to read.’ George said. He was reading again. His wife was looking out of the window. It was quite dark now and still raining in the palm trees. ‘Anyway, I want a cat,’ she said, ‘I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun, I can have a cat.’ George was not listening. He was reading his book. His wife looked out of the window where the light had come on in the square.”
The characters are talking: but they aren’t communicating. She’s attempting to connect with him; he is not.
The story ends with the hotel-keeper sending up a cat so that she can have a cat. It is unclear from the story whether or not this is the same cat: but what is clear is that the hotel-keeper is more concerned with her desires and interests than the husband is.
The hotel-keeper’s character thus emerges through his dialogue, and his actions. We judge him as a kind man (perhaps) or perhaps this is simply his job, to keep tourists placated. We see the actions of the woman in pursuing the cat and through her dialogue in attempting to communicate the importance of the cat to her husband. And we see the actions of the husband (or lack thereof: throughout the story he remains immobile on the bed) and hear through his dialogue his lack of interest in his wife’s interior life.
So what does all this have to do with the theme in my title, here, “the problem of pain”? Simply this: that our characters are, in our stories, working through their pain(s)—whatever those are—as well as their pleasures, whatever those are. (And, I think sometimes in our highest art, the things that cause our characters both pleasure and pain are often either the same thing, or nuanced sides of the same thing, and by focusing deeply on these things in the way that our characters are focused on them, we discover, explore, and reveal our characters through sensory details, so that the reader can choose their own abstractions. As John Updike wrote, it’s the writers job to put real people on the page. It’s the reader’s job to judge them.
The American “wife”/”girl” in this story: is she suffering loneliness? Cabin fever? Feeling adrift? Unhappiness in the marriage? These are all guesses and judgments we as readers make based on the details we’re given. And, crucially, this “pain” often blurs across these various abstractions. Whatever it is that is unsettled, it is enough to keep us reading. Similarly, as we Kahini Magazine el watch her pursue the cat, we are only guessing at her motivations, but this sense of something unsettled is again enough to keep us reading—and writing.