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Make Sure to Save the Cat!

Have you ever started reading a book and wondered if the awful person you have met is actually the hero? Surely it can’t be the jerk who seems to have no redemptive qualities. Yes, a hero, as well as a heroine, needs to grow and change to make a story, but sometimes one of them seems so terrible that we don’t really want to watch their growth through a whole book. If a reader thinks the same, he/she will close the book. Don’t let that be your book.

Blake Snyder wrote SAVE THE CAT: The Last Book on Screenwriting that You’ll Ever Need. I read this book cover to cover and loved it. I’ve delved into the details, mapping out the pacing for my own books. That was before I realized that Jessica Brody took Snyder’s info and revised it to help authors writing novels called SAVE THE CAT! WRITES A NOVEL. I just bought it but haven’t yet had a chance to read it. But if it follows Synder’s screenplay writing book, I’m certain that it is fabulous.

One of the first things Snyder talks about, and what he named his book, is Saving the Cat. What exactly does that mean? Snyder says, “It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”

If you have a character who acts terrible at the beginning of your book, but you want the reader to continue reading and rooting for the character to grow and win love, then you need to give them a redemptive quality. They should secretly have a golden heart or a strong moral compass even if circumstances are making them act like a horrible person or even just a self-centered person. The way to show this golden heart is to have them do something unselfish and good like literally saving a cat.

I just read a book where the heroine is an assassin, and the opening chapter details how she kills an innocent man. This is awful, and I could never root for her to be happy, except that we are in her head in the book. We hear the remorse and the reason behind her actions, and they are honorable reasons. She is saving her younger sister.

The Saving the Cat technique can work in many different ways. I have literally made my hero in THE WOLF OF KISIMUL CASTLE, who was kidnapping my heroine, save a dog. So, although he’s carrying a woman away from her wedding, and he has flung her over his shoulder while she berates him and whacks him with her rose bouquet, he stops to save a chained dog. We instantly see his golden heart and forgive him a bit for his barbarian ways. Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t hate a gorgeous Highlander for giving me the best kiss I’ve ever experienced and then carrying me away from a wedding that I don’t want to go through with anyway.

In another example, I have a hero (SACRIFICE: Book 5 of The Dragonfly Chronicles) who was raised by demons to usher on the end of the world. Before he starts doing terrible things, I have him use his magic to save a child with cancer first. This was his Save the Cat and helped my reader forgive him for his bad attitude. Although he was raised to be the big bad, demon of doom, he has a golden heart full of mercy and compassion.

The more terrible the hero or heroine is in the beginning, the more important it is to show him or her “saving the cat.” If your hero or heroine doesn’t have a spark of good or mercy inside them to do a small act of kindness or show a golden hearted motivation, then they, in my opinion, don’t deserve to be a hero or heroine. And if your reader thinks this way too, they may shut your book, something to avoid at all costs.

Do you try to show your hero and/or heroine doing something kind or having an honorable motivation behind their early downfalls? As a reader, do you root more for the flawed characters if you know they have a golden heart?

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7 responses to “Make Sure to Save the Cat!”

  1. Heather, THANK YOU for posting this blog. I’m struggling with my new hero and I think you just solved my problem. He stepped on page as the nicest guy, which he is in his heart, but I realize now that part of him has to be kept hidden, for now. Readers need to know to what lengths he normal goes as U.S. Marshal. *#@*&% (whacking head with a craft book)

    Thanks for the reminder and the craft book suggestion.

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  2. I should probably worry more about likeability. 🙂 I’ve never worried about making my hero or heroine do good deeds off the bat, but then I usually don’t have them kidnapping or murdering either so maybe it’s a question of scale. To me, it’s more important to understand them and why they are doing what they are doing than it is to demonstrate virtue with a positive act, but I think in a movie setting you need that demonstration because we aren’t inside their heads.

    Great post, Heather. I’ve heard a lot about this book – it’s interesting to think about.

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  3. Thanks Heather. I intended to check out Jessica Brody’s book. Sounds like a good one for the craft shelf. And I needed this reminder as I’m trying to get motivated to start a new book.

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  4. Tamara Hogan says:

    Great post, Heather!

    Regarding redemptive qualities, I like to give my antagonists/villains a few, as well. No person or character is 100% good or 100% bad; we all have shades of gray. I like to give my villains at least a fighting chance of making a righteous choice before they “break bad.” That way, it hurts so much more when they don’t. I like to ask readers to think about what COULD have been, if only…

    I have a copy of Jessica Brody’s SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL sitting on my desk right now. 🙂 I very much look forward to reading it!

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  5. Darynda Jones says:

    Yes, yes and yes! I love this. I don’t mind a hero who is a bit of a jerk, especially if the writer gives him or her a good reason to be but, as Michael Hauge says, we must feel empathy on some level for our heroes BEFORE the writer introduces any flaws. It solidifies our relationship with the hero and gives us a reason to keep reading even when the hero is less than likable at first.

    Great post!

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  6. Elisa Beatty says:

    Save the Cat! is such a simple but brilliant idea.

    My husband and I just watched Russian Doll, and he was complaining about not being able to like the main character (who is described by someone who knows her well as “the most selfish person I’ve ever met.”) But she had a painful backstory, and an adoptive mom who truly loved her, and for me that was enough to keep me caring about her. (Also, she’s literally trying to find a lost cat…)

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  7. Addison Fox says:

    This is a great post, Heather!!! This is so important to remember when we write our heroes and heroines. And it dawns on me – I WANT that as a reader. I will follow a great hero or heroine anywhere – so long as they’re worthy of their HEA.

    As an author it’s so important to remember to make them worthy of it!! 🙂

    Addison

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