Character Study: Catherine Barahal (Spiritwalker Monday 8)

Over on her blog, N.K. Jemisin did a series of character studies for some of the characters in her Inheritance Trilogy. Here’s one, for Itempas.

I decided to borrow the “character study” idea for today’s post so  I could combine it with a question I was recently asked: What was your thought process for the creation of Cat? (LS)

Warning: There will be spoilers later in this post for Cold Magic and Cold Fire, but the first part is fairly general.


First, I wanted Cat to be physically confident, someone who knows when to run and when to stand her ground, and who isn’t afraid of a physical challenge. At the same time I wanted her to NOT be a person whose feelings are bottled up; Cat is very free with her feelings, she laughs and cries easily and does not judge herself for having strong feelings.

That is the initial contrast I was going for: She is both physically confident *and* emotionally confident in the sense that she doesn’t try to hide, disguise, or be embarrassed by her emotions nor does she see being emotional as something inherently weak. She wears her heart on her sleeve and she is not afraid of a challenge.

I did not want her to be a girl who needs to be rescued; I wanted her to be a young woman able to rescue herself (and others). I did not want her anger to be debilitating or shameful; I wanted her anger (when it manifests) to be clean and pure. I did not want her to be coy or retiring; I wanted her to be forthright, curious, and fully engaged in exploring all the aspects of herself that commonly unfold as people come into adulthood, like her sexual feelings, her growing understanding of how politics and the world works and her place within the world, and her concern for and loyalty toward others. I wanted her to judge injustice harshly but to feel compassion even for people who may have hurt her. I wanted her to display a sense of the absurd and to have the capacity to see joy in the world.

Most of all I wanted her to speak for herself because I wanted readers to read about a character who believes in her own voice, as I hope we all can learn to believe in our own voices.

That last turned out to be easy because the book is written in her first person narration. All I had to do was move my own “voice” aside and let the book emerge in her voice. One of the most interesting things about writing in Cat’s voice is that she’s funny. My usual serious-business epic fantasy writing voice is not funny so it has been an illuminating experience writing books that people tell me make them laugh out loud at moments.


Spoilers for Cold Magic and Cold Fire follow.

The other thing I wanted to do with Cat was to show her flaws in action and to allow her to make mistakes, even stupid mistakes, like people do.

Cat is level headed and practical but she’s also a little naive without truly realizing it. She’s compassionate but can be judgmental. Her rashness gets her into trouble, and she is a classic example of a person who leaps before she looks, although fortunately for her her instincts are good and her reaction times excellent.

For all that she talks, Cat can also be very secretive, and this very trait gets her in trouble in Cold Fire. However, if I have done my job correctly as a writer in setting up her history of and reasons for secretiveness, it will be understandable to the reader why she acts as she does.

She makes a couple of bad choices in Cold Fire, particularly with regard to James Drake, that merit further examination.

Cat is accustomed to a close-knit family life. Not only is she an extrovert but she genuinely desires and prefers to be around people. That’s how she feels most at rest in her heart.

In Cold Magic Cat is actually never fully alone in terms of being without actual or “political” familial relations with other people. She is with Bee and her aunt and uncle at the beginning. Then she is married to and travels with Andevai (however unpleasant that experience may be). Fleeing the mage House, she is rescued by the coachman and the eru, and of course the eru has called her ‘Cousin.’ The villagers treat her both as a relation (Andevai’s wife) and as a person with customary guest rights (not to be turned over to the mansa because it would result in her death); she trusts Kayleigh because Kayleigh presents herself to Cat in the relation of a sister (even if she is actually working for Vai). After Cat and Andevai have their brief adventure in the spirit world, Cat returns to the mortal world with Rory–her half brother–and reunites with Bee.

It is not until Cat is cast out of the spirit world by the Master of the Wild Hunt that she truly finds herself alone (in the ocean, which has metaphorical resonance to her because of her fear of water and because of her parents’ death by drowning).

The reckless decisions Cat makes come under pressure of being alone. Her instinct is to try to create relationships with people, as she does with both Abby and Drake on Salt Island and as she perceives she will not be allowed to do with the Taino who are there (the question of whether she has misjudged her initial interaction with the cacica is left for the reader to judge). Her curiosity and her tendency to leap before she examines things closely also play a part in her relationship to Drake, and of course Drake takes advantage of her naivety and her ignorance (about his true purpose in being there).

In my experience of the world people make smart decisions, bad decisions, hasty decisions, hesitant decisions, lucky decisions, and stupid decisions (and so on). With Cat I wanted to portray a person who makes a variety of decisions, some good and some bad. She figures out her own self that her relationship with Drake was a mistake but she does not let making a mistake rule her psyche just as she did not let the mansa’s command for her death rule her life.

Treated as a whole, one of the crucial traits Cat displays across the entire trilogy (no spoiler here) is that she learns. In any life, that is one of the most important qualities of all.


8 thoughts on “Character Study: Catherine Barahal (Spiritwalker Monday 8)

  1. Cat has, in the first two novels, come across to me as someone who works best in the context of other people, and it is when she is alone that she is truly vulnerable, truly in danger and under threat.

  2. What I love about Cat is that she is bold, though she doesn’t seem to see herself that way. She is not afraid to take action and make mistakes and move past them. So many female characters in that age range don’t have that boldness, if they make mistakes they are burdened with them. I wish I had more characters like Cat to read when I was that age!

  3. I didn’t actually think about this specifically when I started writing. It’s one of the things that developed subconsciousnessly as the character unfolded/revealed herself.

  4. Yes, I very much wanted to show her making mistakes in the way we all do — at any age but particularly at that age. And in many cases we are allowed to/able to move on with our lives. The alternative (as you point out) is to be burdened by our mistakes forever, and it bothers me when that is the message being sent. Mistakes are part of learning and living. I also think they are necessary to growth. (leaving aside mistakes that are critically life changing or ending)

    Obviously I also made a choice as a writer not to have Cat be shamed for having sex with someone she didn’t love but in that context I wanted the sex to be a mistake not a sin, if you see what I mean.

  5. I like that it’s realistic, women will make bad decisions that may lead to sex with someone that can be realized later as a “mistake” It’s something that isn’t the end of the world but does have repercussions, I like that you don’t treat it casual or shamefully.

    Also I still do a fangirl dance anytime you respond to my comments. Having my one of my favorite authors be accessible is one of the great wonders of the internet age

  6. The increased potential for interaction between writers and readers fascinates me. It’s so different from the old days of mailing letters — I mean, I am a fan of letters and correspondence, but the internet and social media especially make connection much faster and easier (for good and for ill, depending, but in terms of readers/writers I think far more for good).

  7. Cat is one of my favorite characters ever- for all the reasons you talked about and also because that girl is hysterical. I’ve read CM and CF several times and I’m always reluctant to reshelf it when I’m done.
    She is a fully developed character and because she’s so there, she highlights all the truth in the characters around her. It becomes so real and so easy to slip into.

  8. One of the great pleasures of writing Cat as a point of view character is that she is funny and can express her thoughts in an amusing way. None of my other books have that kind of sense of humor so it was refreshing to write and had to do with her perspective as a character.

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