Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Herding Cats

Do I control my characters or do they control me?

By Rebecca Cantrell

I control most of my characters as much as I control my housecat. The cat and the characters usually come when I call. I can pick them up and move them around, but they don’t stay where I put them unless they really wanted to go there. I have things that I want them to do, and if I’m very clever, they do those things.

I also have memories of cats and characters gone by. They’ve done what they’ve done and I have to make peace with it. My dead characters are based on people who actually existed. They did what they did, said what they said, and all I can do is accommodate that if I want to use them. They have all the control, and I have all the poetic license. If I want to make them deviate from their actual lives, I can sneak that into my author’s note.

But I also have a feral cat. I have limited control over her. She does what she wants and leaves for days at a time. She never comes when I call unless she’s hungry, and then probably only half of the time. I work hard to please her, and she doesn’t appreciate it one bit. Yet, I never stop trying.

I have feral characters. They go where they’re not supposed to go and do things I’d rather they wouldn’t. I currently have one whom I think is mentally ill. In spite of all my therapy on her, she’s not getting better either. But I’m not giving up on her.
Ferals are hard work, but the moments when they jump in your lap and purr are the most rewarding of all.
So, which do you prefer? Housecats? Memories of cats gone by? Or feral cats?


Jeannie Holmes said...

House cats are okay. They're steady and dependable, but not as exciting as the ferals. Since I'm owned by four cats, one of whom was feral and still has a bit of wild streak in him, I like the ferals best -- both characters and cats.

I think it's the unpredictability of a feral character/cat that attracts me. I currently have a feral character ransacking the pages of my second book. He wasn't supposed to show up until the third book but decided he wanted to be in the second. Having him in this one works -- much better than I'd originally thought, actually -- and I'm enjoying the surprises his springs from time to time.

I think we need that as writers. We all try to plan/plot to some degree, some more than others, but it's the surprises and twists that even we don't see coming that make it fun.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jeannie!

There is something about the feral nature that attracts us, isn't there? Bad cats, bad characters, bad boys...

Jen Forbus said...

Oh my God! I LOVE this analogy, Rebecca. I have four cats, and while they were all born to feral mothers, they were scooped up at infancy and have been house cats with me ever since. So they're really housecats. BUT, they all are distinctly different in personality. Forrest will come when he's called but he will also do the calling, especially if the food bowl is empty. Bailey can be very loveable, but only on his own terms. The twins: Isabelle and Amelia are polar opposites. One is demanding, the other skittish. One is fearless, the other gives new meaning to "scaredy cat." But that's what's great about them. Just like in the books. For example, there's only room in Absaroka for one Vic Moretti. If Craig Johnson had another character like her, it just wouldn't work...that's why her mother lives across the country in Pennsylvania! ;) And in L.A., there's only room for one Joe Pike! That's probably why Hawk has to take up residence in Boston!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Jen!

Cats and characters seem to sort themselves out better than humans, don't they?

Glad you liked the analogy. It felt natural to me. Cats you never really completely control, even on your best day.

Four cats? You must be a very tired cat slave.

Kelli Stanley said...

Love the post and the analogy, Becks!!

I'm attracted to wild critters. In my case, not only cats (as the scars on my hand from a cat bite attest), but raccoons. We've had raccoons give birth in our garage, and find their final peace there. We tried to save one that came to us for help ... poor thing had a broken leg.

I have compassion for the wild, natural things in life ... all the fences and rules and chains of society seem to trap them, not make them secure or happy.

Same thing with my characters ...

Thanks for making me think! :)


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Making Kelli think is not easy business, so I'm honored. Wait, is that a compliment or not? It is. You're so thoughtful, it's hard to get a step ahead.

Some wild critters are better off left alone, as that cat scar can also attest.

But, we're writers, we just can't let well enough alone, can we?

Thanks for your great response, Stanley!

Unknown said...

Writer-character, feral-house cat, I can't pick between them, nor between wave and particle either...but I do know that the transition point can take a whole lotta energy :)

Our poor cat Simone is semi-feral. Her vet insists there's no such thing as semi-feral, but he has never lived w/Simone. She asks for attention rarely, and only if we sit quietly and unthreateningly on the couch. But if we try to impose the slightest will of our own on her, she's gone in a streak of black fur, no time to even meow her distress.

I think writing can be like that. There's the stuff I analyze and choose, but if I try to write solely from my will, I'm left with the literary equivalent of the falling "Oops" sign from a Warner Bros cartoon.

Speaking of which, I haven't written my 2000 words today yet, so I gotta go.

See you all on the page...


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Good insights, Mysti!

And good luck on those 2000 words!

Shane Gericke said...

I wish I was feral, but I'm just suburban ...

Our friends' dog Molly, the beagle, had a mind of her own. Proved it one day when she wanted the easy chair that was being occupied by their other beagle, Sherlock. Molly ran to the window and started barking to beat the band. Sherlock leapt up and ran to the window to see what the fuss was about. Molly jumped into the chair and settled in. I swear she was laughing her ass off.

I miss that dog.

Love the posting, Rebecca. Anyone who loves animals is a lovely human being. Anyone who doesn't ...

Becomes a target in my books.

Shane Gericke said...

Jeannie, how do you care for feral cats? Don't they attack with some regularity? How does that work?

And Kel, we have two raccoons living under our deck. They're enormous--think Goodyear blimps on four legs. My deal with them is, if they don't chew the wood, they can stay as long as they like, with our blessing. So far, they've been perfect guests.

Jeannie Holmes said...

Shane, my former feral cat was just a kitten when we adopted him so he's been tamed a bit but the wildness never really leaves. He still likes to pounce on people from the top of the entertainment center or swipe at ankles from under the sofa. Caring for feral cats takes a lot of patience and really quick reflexes. :)

I think a great example of a feral character is Rambo. He left the war but the war didn't leave him. Unfortunately, his fate was the same as that of many ferals but at the same time, he has become one of the most universally recognizable (and beloved) characters. Ferals have a freedom of will that other characters don't possess, and I think that's one reason why we love them so much.