If Your Novel Isn't About Talking Cats Go Back And Start Over

And other answers to unsolicited questions.

Image: José María Pérez Nuñez

“The characters in the thing I’m writing are beginning to behave in ways I don’t understand and I don’t necessarily like. Aren’t I in control of writing this thing? Also, have I gone completely insane?” — Al the Author

Yes, this happens. One minute you are humming along with a character who is driving a yellow Camaro along a gorgeous hillside on a sunlit Greek Island. The air is impossibly beautiful. The blue water stretches as far out as you can see. And then suddenly the character has to stop at Duane Reade for a new toothbrush. Why do fictional characters need toothbrushes? It’s probably a metaphor for something else.

It’s a mistake to think we’re “in control” of anything. Clearly we only continue to exist not because we’re smart or decent or have planned ahead, but because humans are just impossibly lucky. We haven’t driven the planet completely off a cliff just yet. We will probably get to that tomorrow. It is on our to-do list. Meanwhile comets are whizzing by the earth at breakneck speeds and black holes are probably just about to open up and suck us into a Matthew McConaughey movie I don’t really understand. Control is an illusion, we’re really all always walking a tightrope just above the snapping jaws in a pit of blood-soaked bunnies. And don’t you forget it.

But that’s why we write fiction, screenplays and video games. Because we want to be in control of something. In our writing we can drive yellow Camaros and no one will key them for no apparent reason. That would be a lame story, “The Case of the Keyed Camaro.” And the characters in our novels are just as frustrating as real people. They do stupid things, make stupid decisions, usually just to have affairs with one another. In the case of Captain Ahab, he should have let that whole whale thing go. Just move someplace where there is no ocean, possibly Indiana, and forget all about that fucking whale. But I guess Melville felt helpless. That Ahab guy was definitely going to stalk that whale, no matter how badly it was going to end up for him. Humans and fictional characters are inevitably going to do the exact thing they shouldn’t do, like take a nap on some train tracks or wreck a beautiful boat trying to kill a beautiful animal. As the great poet John Wieners wrote, “the poem / does not lie to us. We lie /under its law.” Change the poem part to “novel” or something and it all makes sense.

So, yeah, characters are a pain in the ass. Even if they live an idealized version of the lives of their authors, these characters will always only be themselves. They may make bad decisions. They leave the cheese out all night. They forget to put the recycling out. They should clearly not have an affair and yet they do. You’re just along for the ride, authors. You can sculpt out every second of your characters’ stories on little yellow and green index cards. It won’t make any difference.

In the movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? they suddenly in the middle of a dinner party decide to go to a roadhouse. No one knows why they’re doing this. Why didn’t these mousy college professor-types have their entire dinner party at the roadhouse? How did they suddenly get to the roadhouse? No one knows. But you have to respect these characters choices. Characters are like the pretend children you have that you can kill at any time. So try to enjoy the dumb things they do that infuriate you. They are only young and cute and invisible for a while.

Photo: Letícia Motta

“Does my cat really love me? I can’t tell.” — Sad Sara

Yes, of course your cat loves you. If by love you mean that your cat is totally dependent on you bringing home food and possibly toys to cut up the boredom of lying in sunlight all day. It sounds like a good life, but I guess it would be kind of boring to be a cat and not know anything about the Internet or pornography or anything. I would like someone to give me cans of tuna and let me sleep on the floor all day and only want in return to run its fingers through my fur. But it must be super boring, too. “She’s running her fingers through my fur again! But when are we going to take this relationship to the next level?”

But don’t be sad, Sad Sara. Sure, your cat loves you. Just as all hostages sooner or later fall in love with their captors, our cats fall in love with us even though we don’t let them go anywhere or do anything all that fun. They can’t help themselves. They are too full of tuna to care. Try to type something on your laptop and they will just walk right over the keys. Why are there not more talking cats in great literature? Real cats probably can talk, they just do it when we’re not around. Sometimes you show people you love them by ignoring them completely and giving them nervous conditions. It is a strange, cruel world, probably designed by a cat to benefit all cats into perpetuity. We’re just here to scoop their poop. Philip Larkin wrote “What will survive of us is love.” But what he meant was “What will survive of us is cats, who will eat our dead bodies if no other food comes around.”

You know who clearly does love you? Hunter, the new mascot of the Edmonton Oilers. He likes everything about you and thinks your soul is delicious.

Jim Behrle lives in Jersey City, NJ and works at a bookstore.