Planned Unpredictability

Today I missed getting a photo of the Feral Cat meatloafed on a knoll in a field next to my car. (Yes. There are a ton of prepositional phrases in that last sentence.) I was too slow with my phone, hence this cat-less photo.

001

The place where everyone trespasses and litters

If you’re reading this blog for the first time, you might wonder what on earth I mean by the Feral Cat. I’ve written about him before. He’s an orange tabby sadly abandoned by a previous owner (I assume) and left to fend for himself. He has chosen to hang around my apartment building, which unfortunately for him is a no pets building. But fortunately for him my neighbors and I have fed him.

So there he was, meatloafed and looking very photogenic. By meatloafed I mean he sat with his legs and tail tucked underneath—like a meatloaf with a head (ala this cat’s pose).

Orange Tabby

A meatloafed cat. This isn’t the Feral Cat, but a cat who looks like him.

MeatloafThis is a meatloaf with bacon. Mmm. Bacon.

Anyway, the moment I pulled out my phone, the Feral Cat found his legs and oozed into a tall weed clump in search of birds and mice (again, an assumption). As he did, I thought of his appearances—how unpredictable they are. Even when I discovered his winter hiding place—the bike shed—regular sightings of him were not on the menu. And planting food failed to draw him out. He showed up when he showed up. Oh the parallels I could make to ex-boyfriends. But this post is not about them, but about characters who show up sparingly in a story but nevertheless make an indelible impression. Like the Feral Cat.

Let me tell you what I know about him. He survived a brutal Illinois winter living outside. He’s a fighter, judging by the scars I’ve seen on him from time to time. He’s an excellent mouser, a fact I witnessed thanks to his creative use of my parking spot one day. (Curious? Click on the link in the second paragraph for the post describing that story.) He doesn’t like attention. Trust issues, I’m sure. He does what he wants, when he wants.

Quite the character, huh? He’s beloved for his unpredictability. He would make a great breakout character in a book—possibly the hot loner. Or, thinking outside the box, perhaps he would be the megalomaniac who thrives on chaos, like the Joker (played by Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s tour de force 2008 film. In a narrative, however, authors need a certain amount of control. We can’t let characters wander in and out without knowing when and where they’ll show up—or even why they do—and how they’ll behave when they appear. Letting a character like the Feral Cat or a wildebeest run wild and free without purpose could make a story seem like the weed-choked field in the photo below the first paragraph—totally out of control. (Like my use of multiple prepositional phrases in a sentence.)

           The Joker Wildebeest

The Joker and a wildebeest

We can allow characters like this to have a planned sort of unpredictability. Sounds like a conundrum, doesn’t it? This planned unpredictability needs to be a believable aspect of the character’s arc and also fit with the main character’s arc somehow. In that way, it won’t come off as contrived nor will it take over the narrative. A little bit of a breakout character can go a long way. But careful planning allows a character to be himself/herself, even if he or she causes chaos everywhere, while we maintain a firm grip on the reins of the story.

Readers will rise up and call you blessed if you can pull off a character whose actions they can’t always predict, but who delights them all the same.

As for the Feral Cat, well, I doubt I’ll see him again anytime soon. I’ll see him when I see him. I’m just glad I will.

Orange tabby photo from commons.wikimedia.org. Meatloaf from susan-thinkingoutloud.blogspot.com. Heath Ledger as the Joker from batman.wikia.com.

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34 thoughts on “Planned Unpredictability

  1. I keep thinking about how Godzilla was used in the new movie after reading this. He just kind of shows up from time to time until the final battle. Maybe I’m misinterpreting this because of what I saw yesterday.

  2. I love that you compared your ex-boyfriend to the Feral cat, Linda…or were you comparing him to the meatloaf? 🙂
    Great post! I agree, it all comes down to careful planning. Have a great Monday!

  3. I love unpredictable characters. The recent one is Pope from the show Falling Skies.
    Now, you made me hungry with that meatloaf picture. lol

  4. Very nice! Feral cats, feral boyfriends, feral meatloaf and feral characters. What more could we ask for? I can see how it would be tempting to add a feral character to a story without much planning or structure. It makes a lot of sense as you point out, to plan the unpredictable. You are always thinking of your readers!

    • He seems to be enjoying himself, Professor. I gave him a can of Chicken of the Sea today. Of course he ran off when I brought the can to the dumpster. But when I checked a couple hours later, he’d eaten the can’s contents.

  5. If he’s a feral cat, he was born in the wild. An abandoned cat would be considered a stray, and the offspring of strays are feral. (I had a reference to this in my adult novel, so I couldn’t resist putting it here–sorry!) Also feral and stray cats (outdoor cats in general) trade freedom for lifespan. The average lifespan of an indoor cat is 13 years, but only 5 years for a cat that lives outdoors.

    • Thanks, Lyn. I call him the Feral Cat, because I needed to call him something. 🙂 Feral came to mind as a more compelling name than Abandoned Cat.

  6. Even after reading your post, I’m still laughing that you weren’t quick enough with the camera so you took a photo of the signage. Ah, thank you for the smile!! =^.^=

  7. Haha, I love that “meatloafed”. My cats do that all the time and that’s how I’m going to refer to it going forward.

    I suppose the key is for the character to be unpredictable to the reader but predictable to the writer so that the story doesn’t disintegrate in chaos. And that is definitely a tour de force!

    I love, by the way, how you take seemingly random events and manage to bring them back to a thoughtful post on writing. It makes for such a great illustration of your points!

      • I have two regular tabby cats. Actually in keeping with the character theme, they usually come when I call to them for a cuddle but they take their time, think about it, and then come as if it was their idea all along and not mine.

        Same with characters I guess, they need to things as if it was their idea all along 😉

      • Awww! They sound very cute. The Feral Cat isn’t much of a cuddler sadly. He eventually responds to food. Maybe one day his trust might return.

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