“Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian, was published in the Dec. 11th, 2017 edition of The New Yorker and it made waves. It’s easily the most talked-about story of the year, but it may also be the most-talked about short story in the modern digital age. There were corners of the internet that never discuss short stories discussing this short story. It did a lot of things right with its craft, but far and away its clearest accomplishment, I feel, is the author’s handling of character interiority. When I say “interiority,” I mean emotion, perception, and thought. This is a story that opens a window into the internal processes that can lead someone to make what the protagonist dubs “the worst life decision [she has] ever made.”
So I’d like to investigate Roupenian’s craft of interiority in some depth. If you haven’t read the story yet, read it first. And a warning, I suppose: it involves sex, so, you know, maybe don’t use this lesson in a high school creative writing course.
1. Stimulus, response
The first rule of interiority is that it needs a trigger. It needs a cause. Interiority is reaction.
Roupenian routinely gives us a motivating stimulus and then a response. Here’s an example:
On the drive, he was quieter than she’d expected, and he didn’t look at her very much. Before five minutes had gone by, she became wildly uncomfortable, and, as they got on the highway, it occurred to her that he could take her someplace and rape and murder her; she hardly knew anything about him, after all.
See that? His silence is the external stimulus. It happens outside of Margot. Emotion is typically the first reaction (before thought). In this case, she’s uncomfortable. It’s a feeling. And from that feeling comes a thought: “it occurred to her that he could take her someplace and rape and murder her.” External stimulus, emotion, thought.
2. Feelings precede thought
I think it’s worth separating this out as its own guideline. This is not to say that you need to state the feeling every time you state a thought. It’s just that it’s human nature to feel first and think next. Roupenian does this constantly, even with little things like this one: “He opened his laptop, an action that confused her, until she understood that he was putting on music.” Or this: “‘I like it,’ she said, truthfully, and, as she did, she identified the emotion she was feeling as relief.” Margot feels the emotion and then consciously identifies it (through thinking about it).
3. Chained interiority
The stimulus for interiority is usually external but can sometimes be other interiority. That is, an external stimulus might lead to an emotion and/or a thought, which in turn leads to an emotion, which then leads to another thought. Margot is a very self-conscious character, who does this all the time. We see clear chained interiority during the first kiss:
He kissed her then, on the lips, for real; he came for her in a kind of lunging motion and practically poured his tongue down her throat. It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing. It seemed awful, yet somehow it also gave her that tender feeling toward him again, the sense that even though he was older than her, she knew something he didn’t.
The kiss (external stimulus) spurs unstated disgust (feeling) spurs her incredulity that he could be so bad (thought) spurs tenderness (feeling) and a “sense” of her power over him (a “sense” is interesting; I’d call it unconscious thought).
As Robert Olen Butler points out, one of the ways in which we experience emotion is to flash to the past. “Moments of reference in our past come back to us in our consciousness, not as ideas or analyses about the past, but as little vivid bursts of waking dream; they come back as images, sense impressions.” Roupenian uses this technique on occasion, like during the awkward interaction after the movie, when Margot thinks back to his proposal that they see this Holocaust movie for their date:
Maybe, she thought, her texting ‘lol r u serious’ had hurt him, had intimidated him and made him feel uncomfortable around her. The thought of this possible vulnerability touched her, and she felt kinder toward him than she had all night.
You can see there how the thought about the past then has consequence for her subsequent present-time emotion.
5. Future and Imagination
In addition to remembering the past, we have what Robert Olen Butler calls “flashes of the future . . . of something that has not yet happened or that may happen, something we desire or fear or otherwise anticipate.” This is the fourth expression of emotion he identifies. But speculation of the future is rooted in the broader category of imagination. I want to be careful not to conflate these two modes of experiencing emotion. There is a distinction between future-thinking and imagination. Namely, any anticipation of the future is an act of imagination, but not all acts of imagination are speculations of the future.
Margot sometimes goes on imaginative riffs to a parallel universe (that don’t involve the future). Here’s one of the most central imaginative riffs of the story:
As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.
But certainly, some of Margot’s imaginative riffs, like this other very central one, look toward the future as well:
“We should probably just kill ourselves,” she imagined saying, and then she imagined that somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy who would think that this moment was just as awful yet hilarious as she did, and that sometime, far in the future, she would tell the boy this story.
In the NY Times interview, Roupenian states, “Margot’s empathetic imagination is working on overdrive . . . throughout the story. Her skills at reading other people make her socially adept, but because imaginative empathy is still, fundamentally, imagination, she is also easily misled.” Clearly, then, Margot’s imaginative interiority is pretty crucial to this story.
6. Implied, unstated interiority
Thus far we’ve been discussing interiority reactions that are stated explicitly. Emotion is named, thought is named, a flash to the past is included, or speculation (fantasy or future) is relayed. Sometimes, however, the interiority is left entirely implied. It is not explained in any way. We don’t get to see what’s in Margot’s head. We’re just given an external reaction, the internal cause of which is left invisible to us. We therefore are left to intuit.
Some of the awkward post-coital dialogue is rendered with no stated interiority. Like this exchange:
“Are you still awake?” he asked, and she said yes, and he said, “Is everything O.K.?”
“How old are you, exactly?” she asked him.
And just a bit later, this one:
“Gotta get back to the dorm room,” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Yep,” she said. “Since that’s where I live.”
An author may be tempted to explain what’s going through the character’s head before replying the way Margot does, but is it really necessary? Mostly, you want to leave the explanations for complex internal reactions that we can’t otherwise intuit. Which brings us to . . .
7. Complex feelings
A big part of what makes Margot’s interiority so compelling is its complexity. Take a look at this long paragraph and think about how a film adaptation of the scene would have a very hard time capturing all of this:
Margot laughed along with the jokes he was making at the expense of this imaginary film-snob version of her, though nothing he said seemed quite fair, since she was the one who’d actually suggested that they see the movie at the Quality 16. Although now, she realized, maybe that had hurt Robert’s feelings, too. She’d thought it was clear that she just didn’t want to go on a date where she worked, but maybe he’d taken it more personally than that; maybe he’d suspected that she was ashamed to be seen with him. She was starting to think that she understood him—how sensitive he was, how easily he could be wounded—and that made her feel closer to him, and also powerful, because once she knew how to hurt him she also knew how he could be soothed. She asked him lots of questions about the movies he liked, and she spoke self-deprecatingly about the movies at the artsy theatre that she found boring or incomprehensible; she told him about how much her older co-workers intimidated her, and how she sometimes worried that she wasn’t smart enough to form her own opinions on anything. The effect of this on him was palpable and immediate, and she felt as if she were petting a large, skittish animal, like a horse or a bear, skillfully coaxing it to eat from her hand.
Margot doesn’t feel that Robert’s poking fun at her is fair, but rather than be hurt, she wonders whether he’s been hurt. Thus begins her speculations about Robert’s feelings and her ensuing belief that she is starting to understand him. She then feels closer to him and that she has power over him.
That’s pretty complicated. We begin with a stimulus which she’d be justified in feeling hurt about, and by a pure interior chain of reactions, we land on her feeling power over him.
A large part of what makes Roupenian’s rendering of interiority so masterful is not only that she makes Margot’s interiority so rich and so relatable for so many; it’s that she also renders Robert’s interiority expertly. That is, she gives him very authentic male hangups and insecurities. And in some ways, what she does with Robert is even more impressive because the narrator is limited to Margot’s perspective. So everything Robert is feeling or thinking has to be conveyed in some other way that through stated interiority. I’m referring to this as “indirect interiority,” and though the following tips aren’t different techniques, per se, from the list above, I think it’s worth specifying and elaborating upon how Roupenian pinpoints Robert’s feelings.
8. External reaction
At times, Robert’s reactions to Margot are very revelatory. Reaction is, in general, more revelatory than action because in reaction, we have a clear understanding of the context and can thus intuit the causal chain that leads to the reaction. As I’ve said, the typical order of things is feeling, thought, reaction. We can’t see the feeling or thought, but in seeing the stimulus and the reaction, we can guess at the feeling and thought. Thus, when Roupenian writes the following, we have some ideas about what motivates Robert:
But, when Robert saw her face crumpling, a kind of magic happened. All the tension drained out of his posture; he stood up straight and wrapped his bearlike arms around her. “Oh, sweetheart,” he said. “Oh, honey, it’s O.K., it’s all right. Please don’t feel bad.”
He is empowered by his feeling needed and by Margot’s vulnerability. As humans, we’re equipped to make sense of external reactions like this; such empathic response is built into us. And one of Butler’s expressions of emotion is “a sensual response that sends signals outside of our body–posture, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, and so forth.” By showing those sensual responses, we can communicate a lot about the internal.
9. POV-character judgments
We can’t fully trust the judgments of any perspective character, but when they’re backed up with some evidence (of external actions), then we may be more swayed. Margot has a lot of erroneous judgments, but sometimes we get ones that feel accurate:
As they talked, she became increasingly sure that what she’d interpreted as anger or dissatisfaction with her had, in fact, been nervousness, a fear that she wasn’t having a good time. He kept coming back to her initial dismissal of the movie, making jokes that glanced off it and watching her closely to see how she responded. He teased her about her highbrow taste, and said how hard it was to impress her because of all the film classes she’d taken, even though he knew she’d taken only one summer class in film.
I find Margot’s interpretation of Robert to be pretty convincing. And I think the final several lines of the story demonstrate his nervousness and insecurity very clearly.
But perhaps even more convincing example is this:
“You don’t need to apologize,” he said, but she could tell by his face, as well as by the fact that he was going soft beneath her, that she did.
Michael Byers argues that sometimes, impressions of how something seems can often bring a description to life. This is, of course, just an extension of #9 above, because narration of something seeming is inflected with the perspective character’s assessment of things, but this is such a quick and nearly-invisble way of accomplishing #9; I wanted to pinpoint it. Here’s an example from “Cat Person”:
At the front door, he fumbled with his keys for what seemed a ridiculously long time and swore under his breath. She rubbed his back to try to keep the mood going, but that seemed to fluster him even more, so she stopped.
In this case, Margot’s impression of the Robert’s actions seems accurate.
Bringing it all together
In the heart of the sex scene, we can see almost every technique above applied in rapid succession. Causal chains, reaction, imagination, memory, implied interiority, complexity galore. I’ll present it here without my commentary, but you should be able to find every technique above, with the exceptions, if we’re being strict, of #5b and #10.
“You don’t have to be nervous,” he said. “We’ll take it slow.”
Yeah, right, she thought, and then he was on top of her again, kissing her and weighing her down, and she knew that her last chance of enjoying this encounter had disappeared, but that she would carry through with it until it was over. When Robert was naked, rolling a condom onto a dick that was only half visible beneath the hairy shelf of his belly, she felt a wave of revulsion that she thought might actually break through her sense of pinned stasis, but then he shoved his finger in her again, not at all gently this time, and she imagined herself from above, naked and spread-eagled with this fat old man’s finger inside her, and her revulsion turned to self-disgust and a humiliation that was a kind of perverse cousin to arousal.
During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head. When she was on top, he slapped her thigh and said, “Yeah, yeah, you like that,” with an intonation that made it impossible to tell whether he meant it as a question, an observation, or an order, and when he turned her over he growled in her ear, “I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits,” and she had to smother her face in the pillow to keep from laughing again.
I challenge anyone to write a sex scene so fraught with authentic character internal struggles, especially one that so adeptly captures our received heterosexual gender concepts and all the baggage that accompanies such role playing.
Want more lessons on narration and interiority? Check out these previous articles:
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