Play Cat’s Cradle: Making Character Connections with @RebeccaPetruck

Oft-quoted writing advice includes, “Put the manuscript in a drawer until you can read it with new eyes.” If you have time to do that, great. But there is another way to create distance and gain new perspectives on your work. I’ve called it “play cat’s cradle” especially for KidLit Summer School! 🙂

To play cat’s cradle you need a string tied into a loop by a knot. Without the knot, there is no loop, it is only string. The same is true of your main character and your story. Your main character is the knot—without him or her, your story is only a string of events. Every meaningful character in your story exists to effect change in the main character during the arc of the story. So a useful exercise for me is to follow the thread for how each character is connected not to the MC but to the MC’s change.

First, I ponder the knot, which for me has three elements: the MC’s Want, the MC’s Need, and Theme. Generally, the Want and Need are in conflict with each other, and that conflict shines a light on the Theme. Key words tend to pop up, and I use them and my trusty Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus to make connections.

The process is easiest to explain by example.

In my next book, Will Nolan Eats Bugs, Will’s Want is to be a good friend, which he identifies with being loyal, having someone’s back. His Need is to be a decent person, which requires he be loyal to himself and his personal values. Synonyms for “loyalty” include: allegiance, faithfulness, adherence, devotion, steadfastness, staunchness, trueheartedness, dependability, reliability, trustworthiness, duty, commitment, and patriotism. The key antonym is treachery.

All these words have the same connection—loyalty—yet watch what happens when I begin to group them by Will and the three key players who affect the most change in Will’s character.

Will: truehearted, steadfast, trustworthy.

Darryl (friend since kindergarten; overtly challenges Will’s personal values): staunchness, allegiance, duty, adherence. Darryl’s vision of loyalty is very much like patriotism, somewhat blind, owed, and any betrayal is like treason which makes Will a traitor.

Eloy (potential new friend; an ally, but one who calls Will on his crap): reliability, truehearted, trustworthy, dependability. Though Eloy has a growing loyalty to Will, he first and always has a deep loyalty to his family and self. He is very much in the camp loyalty is earned, not owed.

Hollie (Will’s sibling; is “betrayed” by Will’s actions): trustworthy, commitment, devotion, dependability. She can call Will an idiot, but no one else can. As family, loyalty is both owed and earned.

Grouping synonyms by character highlighted connections I hadn’t noticed, not only to Will but between the other characters.

cats cradle


(The pretty chart I drew just for KidLit Summer School!)

Darryl is the most overt antagonist, and now I see Why. Though the root word is the same for all, his approach to loyalty is very different from the others. Like Darryl, Hollie is betrayed by Will, yet her response to the betrayal is different because her sense of loyalty is rooted differently. Additionally, I see why Eloy and Hollie keep after Will, not abandoning him even when he acts like a doof—the three share similar senses of loyalty.

This bird’s eye view of the connections between my main character’s change helps me clarify what actions might be taken not only by Will but by all the characters. Now I have a great resource.

cats cradle 2. jpg

(The actual working chart; not as pretty, but useful.)

As I consider a scene, I hold it up to my chart and think, “Where is this on the thread? How does it pull at Will’s knot?” It also helps me think more intentionally about each character’s development. It’s not only that they do something to effect change in the MC, but also that I get why they do that something and how it pushes at the MC.

I hope this pre-writing exercise helps! And now I’m off to find more yarn…

PetruckR_headshotRebecca Petruck’s debut Steering Toward Normal is an American Booksellers Association New Voice and a Kids Indie Next List title. Vanity Fair’s Hollywood and the L.A. Times also have spotlighted the MG novel. Petruck was a member of 4-H, a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her next book is Will Nolan Eats Bugs (Fall 2017).

This year we welcome Rebecca back for the third year in a row to STNKLSS to lead us in  #30mdares, online writing exercises where we motivate each other to write by setting aside 30 minutes and writing with a prompt Rebecca gives us. The only “rule” is to set a timer and go without stopping for 30 minutes. Look for more announcements about these fun events in future KLSS emails and blog posts! 


For now, follow Rebecca on twitter: @RebeccaPetruck, on Facebook: /rpetruck, and visit her website by clicking HERE.

KLSS Announcement: Webinar TONIGHT for pre-registered students at 8:00 pm, EST. Yes, the time is now 8:00 pm, EST.


31 comments on “Play Cat’s Cradle: Making Character Connections with @RebeccaPetruck

  1. kateywrites says:

    This is a really great way of looking at story points graphically – thanks for sharing your techniques, Rebecca! I am looking forward to the #30mdare fun again this year!


  2. Wow, that post really made me think about character development. Can’t wait for those 30 minute dares!


  3. kathalsey says:

    I love both charts! Making those connections via the thread of the MC is a genius move. I will be using it. Also, the “messy” chart makes me realize that I’m on track when my brain spills out like that on paper. TY.


  4. csheer18 says:

    Rebecca – Your “show-and-tell” lesson showing how to follow MC ‘s and other characters’ threads is just what I needed to move forward on a current manuscript. I will save this blog post for future reference! THANKS!


  5. Marge Gower says:

    Great way to get a handle on the way characters will react to a situation. This would help a story to move along quicker. Thanks for sharing.


  6. Sarah Yasutake says:

    This is a fantastic, fresh approach! Thank you, Rebecca. I hope to join in on some of the dares this year.


  7. Lori Dubbin says:

    Thank you for showing us how to build bridges to connections and make our MC pop off the page!


  8. Laura Rackham says:

    Love the visuals!


  9. JEN says:

    Great exercise! I immediately found new ways to think about my own manuscript while reading this post.


  10. JEN says:

    WordPress is messing with me! I make comments that don’t show up, then it tells me I’ve already said that. I wanted to say:

    Great exercise! I immediately found new ways to think about my own manuscript while reading this post.


  11. Thanks, Rebecca. Your comment about looking at not how each character is connected to the MC, but how they’re connected to the MC’s change made me go “oooooh!” Great post, love the pretty new chart, and sooo looking forward to the #30mdares.


  12. Anita Banks says:

    This makes so much sense…..thanks for the visual…looking for my color markers and paper


  13. Maria Marshall says:

    This hit a chord with me. Thanks for connecting character back to a loved childhood game! I also can’t wIt for the 30 minute dares.


  14. An excellent post. I’ll definitely be doing this for my WIP. Thank you so much, Rebecca.


  15. Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing your charts for character development. I’m looking forward to the #30mdares!


  16. Deborah Allmand says:

    A wonderful writer’s tool. Thanks for the post.


  17. This: “Generally, the Want and Need are in conflict with each other, and that conflict shines a light on the Theme”! Thank you for that reminder…I was stuck in the brambles of my story and this was just what I needed to find my way out. Thank you!


  18. emilycolin says:

    Thank you for the visual representation, Rebecca…loved both the pretty and not-so-pretty charts! 🙂 A really helpful way of looking at characterization…definitely adding this to my writer’s arsenal!


  19. Mary Worley says:

    This is a helpful way to look at characters. I like the focus on the MC’s change. Thanks!


  20. Sandy Perlic says:

    Ooh! I like this way of looking at the interactions between the main and secondary characters! Thanks.


  21. This is fascinating. Thank you. I was especially struck by the way the synonyms and antonyms helped you think about the WHY behind each attribute/trait. I’m currently working on getting to know my characters better and this will give me a way to get deeper into their heads.


  22. ptnozell says:

    Fascinating way to visually indicate character connections. Thank you! And I look forward to the #30mdares.


  23. Kirsten Bock says:

    So helpful. Thanks Rebecca!


  24. writersideup says:

    It’s always amazing to me the different methods writers come up with. This is VERY interesting and I love how that one word “loyalty” is defined differently by each character. Thanks, Rebecca!


  25. Juliana Lee says:

    This analogy works on so many levels. Thanks for tying us up in knots before we begin! Aside, now I’m humming Cat Steven’s song Cat’s in the Cradle….


  26. Amy Benoit says:

    Very clever advice…and timely for me! Thank you, Rebecca!


  27. Keila Dawson says:

    I can’t wait to try this exercise. I can see how this could be very helpful in really getting to know your characters. Thanks Rebecca.


  28. Val McCammon says:

    Love the idea of connections to get to theme and tie to actions. Thanks, Rebecca.


  29. judyrubin13 says:

    Thank you. Pre-writing is such an incredible part of our craft.


  30. Kristen C.S. says:

    Golden take-away: “So a useful exercise for me is to follow the thread for how each character is connected not to the MC but to the MC’s change.”… Needed that! Thx. =)


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