the anatomy of purring

According to Wikipedia, the mechanism by which cats purr is elusive, because there’s no part of their anatomy strictly responsible for the sound. I admit I found this a little surprising, because I was looking more for some concrete proof that it is physically impossible for humans to purr.

My failed research aside, though, humans do not purr. Go ahead and give it a go. No, really, take as long as you like.

Okay, now how about a snarl? And how about this for a research gem – a snarl is a facial expression, not a sound. Gums raised, teeth bared, nostrils dilated. The noise has become synonymous with the expression, but it was an expression first.

That little gem disproves the point I’m trying to make, because technically humans can snarl. Except that when I read “he snarled” I always imagine that terrifying low growly sound lions and such make.

I imagine the human range of expressed, primal emotion is more like the noises gorillas make. Huffs, growls, yells. All of those I could make right now, if I wasn’t sitting beside my husband in the morning quiet and it would make him think, you know, that I’d gone mental.

My point is this: Characters purr and snarl, I see it all the time. And aside from the times it makes me think, “Er, how exactly?” I like it.

A cat is such an alien, indifferent sort of an animal, but when they purr there is this moment of deep contentment and pleasure. So when a character purrs – and it’s most often used in an intimate moment, when they have opened up or come close – it evokes that same sense of contentment and pleasure. There’s almost a sense that home is achieved.

A snarl, despite the new evidence my amazing research has brought to light, evokes for me a wolf at bay. There’s something of a lifted lip, and teeth, and the low, continuous warning. It’s a sound that says, “Right now I’m making noise. If you don’t pay very close attention, I will stop making this noise and start using my teeth.” When a character snarls it most often shows possessiveness – a human reverting back to the animal to protect what is theirs.

Once I started looking directly at these traits fictional people have that I don’t, I started seeing other things.

Characters – especially in romance – are often described as graceful. So graceful their movements are mesmerising. This is such a rare quality in humans; I almost never use the word to describe someone. A friend of mine once told me that she loved how exact her boyfriend was physically. If he reached for a cup, his hand closed without fuss exactly around the cup. He never knocked things over. I found it such a strange – and strangely compelling – thing to notice about someone.

Crooked and lop-sided grins have a definite counter-part in reality, but I can’t help feeling they have come to mean something particular in fiction. When I read a crooked grin, there’s this extra dimension to the character’s face – this extra, curvy place a mouth can go to.

There’s the photoshopped perfection of skin, when it’s described as alabaster (which now applies so specifically to skin that I’ve done some more research: It is the material or calcite of two distinct minerals) and the brain is not obliged to add a single blemish.

Everyone reads differently. Just the other day Cat and I had a long, incredulous conversation, as I tried to wrap my brain around the idea that she doesn’t see pictures at all when she reads. She reads by accumulating facts.

I see pictures – but I put faces and places together imperfectly. My stock of character faces are possibly more similar to computer-generated characters. The planes of the face are sharper, eyes more saturated in colour, skin less complex. Limbs are easy, graceful, hair is all sorts of crazy things that can still be soft, because there’s no need for gel. The direction of hair, by the way, confuses the hell out of me. I think I see mirror image when I’m watching a character, then right way round when I’m in a character.

But that’s beside the point.

The point is: Fictional characters are not human. They are of a different species altogether – something alien and flexible, that takes on some internal point we’re trying to fix and express.

It’s good to get the details just right so that they can evoke something true. But I suspect it’s equally good to be aware that you’re describing the expression of something human that is itself a little inhuman.

Comments 6 Responses

  1. robena grant

    Very nice. Thoughtful. However, whenever I read of a character purring my mind takes a giant leap to the movie, When Harry Met Sally, and Harry claimed he made a woman meow. I know. I’m weird that way. : )

    1. anna cowan Post author

      ha, I’m all in favour of meowing! I reckon that’s a brilliant use of an animal characteristic. It’s not the one normally associated with sex, so it says more about Harry’s sexual prowess than a more conventional sound would. I wouldn’t mind being made so happy I meowed 😉

  2. sarahsmeth

    Love it Anna. I totally agree with seeing a ‘wolf at bay’ and an ‘extra, curvy place a mouth can go to.’ Things certainly are heightened in the imagination – I guess that’s why it’s always a bit uncomfortable to see things made into movies, where everything often appears too…real.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      It was very strange talking to Cat about how she doesn’t read with pictures, and she said she loves movie adaptations for that very reason – she gets to see the world of a book she loves. Imagine “seeing” Hogwarts for the very first time! (Okay, I just heard how nerdy I sound, but that’s okay. I am a bit of a nerd.)

  3. bleu_bleuet

    This was a nice post. You ought to do one about how you create/perceive your characters/ see the world in books. Or maybe what you think of illustrations. I would really like to know what it is like for you!

    As for the purring… Actually I think humans can do it. Sure, not in the same way as cats, but when I read that someone is ‘purring’ I always imagine this deep, vibrating hmmmmmm-ing exhalation that seems to be located entirely between the ribs. 😛 Do you really hear the purring of a cat?

    It never occured to me that some people might not see pictures while they are reading. For me, the characters are always in motion, even if the author doesn’t tell me about it. I see their breathing, the opening and closing of their eyes, their unique muscle tension, their mimic… Which is why I hate books like the the Wheel of Time where there is no characterisation whatsoever. I simply don’t get a feel for what the characters could be moving like. So they don’t. And therefore don’t exist.
    I think it is like this for me, because I cannot remember faces. (After 19 years I still cannot tell two of my aunts apart unless they are sitting next to each other and even then I don’t know who is who. Meaning who is my father’s sister and who has married my father’s brother. They don’t look at all alike, but their body form is simillar and they have the same kind of soft movements.)
    I only see faces when there is mimic going on, which is not as often as you move the rest of your body. I remember real peoply by the way they move (especially their shoulders and collar bones), their body form (pointy, oval, long, quadratic, like a carrot, etc) and their body’s structur (lots of muscles, barely any, leathery skin, etc), too. So it is not really surprising I visualise characters in books the same way, is it?

    I find it really difficult to decide whether the problem about fictional characters is that, for me they seem more real than ‘real’ people, that I whish they were real or that they have too many characteristics that (should) make them unreal…

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I think I have the same trouble as you – that I’ll only see what’s described for me (of course the best description is the fewest possible words that evoke a whole image). Sometimes I force myself to actually stop and fill out all the details for myself before I continue. I often have to do this with houses/flats because otherwise I end up falling back on maybe 5 stock interiors I have in my imagination, that I just re-upholster depending on who’s supposed to live there :-).

      One limitation my “seeing” has when I read is that I don’t see characters actually speak – I evidently don’t have the motor skills to make their mouths move in time to the words. It forces me to look too closely somehow, and bursts the suspension of disbelief. So I guess my internal images play somewhat like anime, where you rarely see the characters actually speaking the words.

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