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