The ‘feral’ cats and a thought on writing good characters

I’d been waiting in line for nearly two hours at the Waterville Humane Shelter Saturday when I finally was let into the cat area to see the cats. It was “clear the shelter” day and by the time my number came up, there weren’t many left — which is a good thing for the cats.

I’d wanted one, maybe two, females (I’d had a fella with some spraying issues in the past), but all the “normal” cats left were male.

“We do have some females in the feral room,” the young woman I thought of as my facilitator said.

Even though she said it with the unsaid tag “that you probably wouldn’t want to adopt,” I didn’t hesitate. “Let’s take a look,” I said.

Shelters have a tough job and they want to make sure people leave with a pet that’s a good fit, one the adopter will keep. I understand when they describe “feral” cats in the bleakest possible terms to potential new families. But I also have a lot of experience with cats, and know the really feral ones are spayed and released back into their feral colony.

The cats in this room were a collection of strays, hoarded cats and those who didn’t interact socially when they were brought in. They were quiet, each sitting in his or her own milk crate, some curled on shelves along the walls. None moving or making any noise.

Milo, in the feral room, with Penny snuggled behind him.

The room smelled about like what you’d expect that room to smell like.

I sat on the bench and watched them as they watched me. I listened to the faciliators describe the cats to other potential adopters in the same bleak terms. Most of those people,  mostly families with kids, took a pass after getting the low down.

The cats all seemed sad, resigned to living in a spare smelly room with a bunch of other cats they didn’t know, and maybe didn’t like. Who could blame them for being antisocial?

I finally settled on a couple — a handsome Maine coon boy and the little tortie girl snuggled behind him, hiding so well that I didn’t see her until the shelter volunteer pointed her out.

I know cats dropped at a shelter can have issues. In the past, besides the farm cat, side-of-the-road cats, kitten-giveway cats I’ve had, I also had one from a hoarder situation I was told “would never be friendly.” Within months she was the most affection cat I’d ever had. I also had two shelter dogs I was told had rough backgrounds and needed a lot of TLC to overcome issues who became the two best dogs ever.

“Feral” is a word that naturally strikes a chord with people, and not a good one. But I know that cats, like people, are more complicated than their label. Driving home with two silent cats in carriers, the writer in me turned that over and chewed on it.

Penny gets ready to leave the shelter for her new home. This is the best look I’ve had of her in the five days since I adopted her.

Sometimes when writing characters it’s easier to trot out a label and expect the reader to fill in the blank. We read [or hear] a word, and settle on a conclusion and that’s that.

I’d not too long ago read a book that did that with many of its secondary characters, and I found it largely unsatisfying. I often chew over books that fell short or bothered me, sometimes for a long time. I figure dissecting them helps my own writing. Driving home with my “feral” cats, the dissatisfaction with that recent book found its target.

At the shelter, I’d barely listened to the feral descriptions because I knew the cats’ personalities went much deeper than their label. It became clear as I questioned several different people at the shelter that no one knew much about what either cat was really like. I’ve edited or mentored writers who had the same issue when I’ve asked them to desribe characters, and my advice is always the same — scrap the superficial label and figure out who the character really is.

Feral is a necessary description for a shelter that wants to make sure people know the worst-case scenario when they’re adopting.

Milo likes to check things out from the stop of the stairs.

When writing, it’s more important to know what’s behind the label. If you’re going to label a character, but then explore whether the label fits, fine. Don’t you find that in most good books, it turns out the person wasn’t what he or she was labeled at all?

Other good books dispense with the label altogether. And to clarify, I’m not specifically discussing “feral,” but any cliche label that’s used as shorthand to describe a character.

By fully getting to know who characters are, it makes the story and plot come a lot easier.

In the five days I’ve had the cats, who are now Milo and Penny, Milo has shown himself to be a funny boy who’s wary of me, but curious. He likes scattering cat toys around the house, tends to wander into whatever room I’m in, at least at night, and from the first night seems to sense when I”m going to bed and lounges on the stop step, waiting. Then, of course, he runs away when I come up the stairs.

I have yet to get a good look at Penny. She’s been hiding. I don’t blame her. I look forward to getting to know her. I have a feeling her character is going to be pretty interesting.

Just like writing good characters, it takes a little work and a lot of time, but the story ends up being so much better.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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8 Responses to The ‘feral’ cats and a thought on writing good characters

  1. Great post. We had several ‘tossed by the side of the road’ cats when we lived in Chelsea and they were all great pets. My travels through mental health and rural Maine have introduced me to plenty of feral humans as well. Most, like stray animals, have much to tell us.

  2. The Cat Lady says:

    Bless your heart for taking the two beautiful cats into your life. I wish more people would do the same. All our cats have arrived in our yard from an unknown former life and have been wonderful pets. Our dogs have all been shelter pets who gave so much love and companionship in return.

  3. Pingback: The ‘feral’ cats and a thought on writing good characters — Maine Crime Writers – Three Rivers Novelties

  4. Anne Cass says:

    Good for you and even better for Milo and Penny. Our Tinker is feral, born in a Weber grill somewhere in PA and collected by us 12 years ago. She has her moments (she doesn’t go to the vet because she freaks out) and she’s pretty loving and attentive… especially as 5 pm approaches. I swear they have clocks in their tummies. 🐈

  5. bethc2015 says:

    Glad those cats found a good home with you. I agree with your taking the time to develop a relationship with animals and characters. My favorite books are the ones where i get to know the characters well.

  6. Catwoods says:

    Good for you, taking in the feral kitties! Some of our cats have been ferals who became sweeter and friendlier with time, although it did take awhile.

  7. Mar Preston says:

    Loved your way of integrating cat’s and character’s personalities.

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