Save the Cat
Most of you have heard the term “Save the Cat”, popularized by the excellent book by the same name — Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.
“Save the Cat” refers to an early beat in a story outline where the main character does something that makes the audience like them. You can take a grouchy, mean, violent anti-hero of a main character and have them do something redeeming (saving a kitten from a tree, for example) early enough in the story, and suddenly you have the audience rooting for them and hoping they succeed.
It’s like a magic trick that keeps on working even after you explain the secret.
Make Me Care
Thing is, it’s not just about making the character do a good deed — it’s about making the reader CARE about them and what happens to them.
You may think that your character is plenty likable, and you don’t really need to worry about having the readers care because surely they will adore your character just as much as you do … but the truth of the matter is, even if you have the sweetest, kindest main character ever to grace the pages of a novel, you STILL have to do something that makes me care.
Maybe you’re lucky enough to get it by accident, but for those of you like me who want to have more of a deliberate approach to this sort of thing, let’s talk.
Why Should I Care About This Character?
Because just having your character save a cat when that has nothing to do with the theme or plot of your story … that’s going to fall flat, isn’t it?
So ask yourself — why do you (the author) like the character? What aspects of their personality really draw you to them? What habits do they have that you think the reader will like or care about?
Show those early. HIGHLIGHT those early.
Your character has an adorable nervous tic where she doodles in the margins of her papers when she’s listening to someone, but maybe it looks like she’s not paying attention at all? Show me that.
Your character is depressed and heartbroken and lonely and it seems like all is lost … but he comes home to build the most intricate tiny dollhouses in his spare time? Show me that.
Your character has crazy mood swings and speaks entirely in song lyrics? Show me that.
It sounds simple and silly, but it’s so easy to focus on pushing the story as fast as possible that you forget to tell me why I should care about this person. What makes THEM special.
Now That I Like Them …
More than that, now that you’ve got the groundwork for making me care about the character … show me what they want.
Show me the hole in their life.
Maybe they see it — someone looking for romance.
Maybe they don’t — someone who doesn’t realize how lonely they are.
It doesn’t matter if the character sees the hole as long as the reader can see it.
… Although if the character doesn’t see it, they still have to WANT something. Give them a goal. In most cases, they should have a plot-related goal, but maybe they have subplot-related goals, too.
I want to know what this character thinks they want (even if they don’t get it, or shouldn’t get it).
Get the Reader Asking Questions
Don’t underestimate the importance of having a character WANT something. Even something as silly and small as “I am thirsty, and thus want a glass of water” — that desire compels the character to DO something.
It forces action. If your character needs to be in the kitchen so that they meet up with the Genie-on-the-run who promises them three wishes in exchange for helping them get out from under the heels of their current master … don’t have your character go to the kitchen for no reason. Have them be thirsty.
It’s a small thing, but it’s huge in relation to the impact on the reader. It starts us asking questions — even tiny ones — like “will he get the water?”
And the moment we ask ourselves questions about what will happen, we’re already half-hooked on turning the page to find the answer.
What are some of your favorite stories (book/tv/movie/whatever) that have great early character moments that made you fall in love with them? What are some examples of it being done right?