Before I start getting letters from animal protection agencies, let me just say, I’m not talking about killing animals. Not at all. (I’m a BIG softie and very squeamish, so let’s not go there, okay? Okay.) What I’m actually talking about is an idea that might elevate your writing. Stay with me for a few….
SAVE THE CAT.
I’ve read quite a bit lately on “save the cat” moment in books. Essentially, it’s the point in your work where your main character has some sort of kindhearted moment that makes him/her likeable. If your protagonist starts out as a good person, this makes the reader like him even more. But if he turns bad early on, we’ll have that reminder, that one thing that makes us wonder if he’s really all bad. After all, he did save that cat (or help the old lady across the street, or fix a woman’s flat tire etc.). The “save the cat” moment is essential because readers MUST like your characters or they won’t care what happens to them.
In Joe Hill’s HORNS, we know right off that bat that main character Ig Perrish has done some bad things and that no one cares very much for him because of his reputation. In the biggest show of karma, he wakes up on page one sporting horns, just like the devil. But is he all bad? Doesn’t he have some heart? Hill gives us a moment early on where Perrish laments about a girl he loved, a girl who died in some tragic way, and how much he wishes he’d been there to help her. That’s really all the reader needs. We understand he has some heart. It makes us want to read more about him. Maybe he’ll turn out rotten to the core, or maybe people just think he’s rotten and we’ll know better, but it does something else….it makes the character complex.
KILL THE CAT.
Turn the mirror around, then. We often write protagonists that go the other way—-we make them totally likeable. Maybe they never do anything wrong, but bad things happen to them. Maybe they are funny and kind and certainly characters we could spend an entire book with. But are they real? Do you know anyone who is perfect all the time? Even if they don’t act on bad choices or thoughts, people still have them. So why not write your protagonist with a “kill the cat” moment at some point in the book? Making the reader wonder if they will always make the right choices or not provides some conflict, and that’s what great storytelling is all about, right?
So, have a save the cat moment for your antagonists, and a kill the cat moment for your protagonists, and you’ll have complex characters that will keep people reading!