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iLesson: Make your hero a good investment

Your protagonist may be full of flaws (after all, every main character needs to grow), but we, the readers, need a reason to root for them, from the very beginning.

Blake Snyder calls this the “Save the Cat” rule, referring to the scene in a movie (just about any movie) where the hero does something to let us know that he’s worth rooting for. While we may like a character well enough, a heroic moment gives us a reason to invest in her.

It’s not a literal save. (Though Will Smith does save a cat in I, Robot. So does Sigorney Weaver in Alien(s).) It’s when the cop-on-the-take may give an old homeless guy money for lunch. The ice-queen socialite visits her dotty grandmother once a week. Even the revelation of a droll sense of humor can make us want to root for a character who might on the surface seem unsympathetic. (See: The Godfather, and any Quentin Tarantino movie.)

Some rules of thumb for “Saving the Cat”:
1) If your protagonist acts like a jerk, give him/her a reason to do so.
2) Give us a reason to like her, even if we don’t like her present actions.
3) Show us, don’t just tell us.
4) Show us early, or we might not make it that far.
5) Don’t forget to give us a reason to root for your likable hero, too.

I’m curious: What’s your favorite ‘save the cat’ example from a book or movie?
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9 thoughts on “iLesson: Make your hero a good investment”

  1. I appreciate this concept. Definitely gotta make your hero 'redeemable' from the get-go or nobody's going to like them. Saving kittens, planting a tree, squashing deadly-attacking monsters barehanded. It all makes sense. I'll have to make sure I did that in my WIP…

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  2. Kristen. I love that book. It's got a ton of good info in there, and really makes me think about what makes a popular novel. Chantal– Don't forget, helping little old ladies across the street. Jamie– Hmmm. Well, not kicking snakes off the cliff would be a start. It could be save teh snake instead of save teh cat.

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  3. My fave "Save the Cat" moment is actually the reversal a "Kill the Cat" moment, when someone does something awful to your hero (but don't make them seem too pathetic). My favorite example is in Legally Blonde when her boyfriend breaks up with her on the night she thought he was going to propose. Up until that point she could be written off as a bimbo. But he was such a jerk about it you have to love Elle even before her big transformation. (I'm a HUGE Synder fan btw. His screenwriting advice is awesome for fiction writers too!)

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  4. Coleen, that's a GREAT point that I missed. (Snyder did allude to it in his book, though.) If something happens to your character to make them just a bit of an underdog, it can work, too. I think that depends on what happens, and how they handle it. If they get knocked down, and handle it with resilience (as Elle does) we want to root for them.

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  5. I got a copy of this book and I've been meaning to read it. Will probably have to do so soon methinks. On the upside, my main character saves a life in the first few pages. Then again, he does it for a living. Maybe that's cheating. Or maybe he's just awesome? 😀

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