I’m sure many of you have read Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book “Save the Cat!” and in fairness, I haven’t but personally, I think that these sorts of shortcuts and “tricks” are counter to good screenwriting. Now, I certainly don’t want to speak ill of the dead and perhaps there is a lot of good solid advice in the book but I’ve witnessed the “Save the Cat!” fallout in many scripts of late.
The bottom line is that there are no shortcuts to good storytelling. The problem is that I too often see people take their main character and quite hamfistedly throw in a “Save the Cat” moment and it’s painfully obvious when you see it. If your character saves a cat, he’d better run a cat rescue and that better be a part of the story. If you’ve done a good job in writing your character, he shouldn’t need to save the cat for the audience to connect with him. And if you’ve done a piss-poor job developing your character, no amount of cat saving is going to make the audience connect to him.
I don’t recall Hannibal Lecter saving any cats or doing anything that wasn’t driven by his sociopathic narcissism. Yet no one complained that there should be less of him or he should have a soft spot somewhere. Because A. it would be fucking ridiculous and B. Lecter was a very detailed, complex character that was brilliantly brought to life by Anthony Hopkins. You felt like he was real and as repulsive as he was as a human being, you couldn’t help but be drawn in by him. It’s human nature to relate to other people, to understand them even if we are very different -even diametrically opposite.
If a character is a bad person the key to having the audience connect to him is by letting us understand him not by making him do one random act of kindness in a transparently obvious attempt to say “See, he’s not ALL bad!”
A good example is the TV Show HOUSE. House is a pretty shitty person. He’s completely narcissistic and self-serving. Yet you like House. Why? Because he’s pretty fuckin’ funny, yeah… But also because you feel like you know him. you want to believe that deep down there’s a wounded soul that is really a good person at heart –even though the show almost never does anything to show you that he is! You project this onto House and when he does something good, even when it’s ultimately self-serving, you choose to see that as “he’s not a bad guy”. Yet, if House went and did something completely, unambiguously altruistic (save the cat) it would be against his character and completely cheap and transparent.
The bottom line is don’t TRY to make your characters likable -or detestable for that matter- make your characters real people with real strengths, flaws and motivations and let the audience feel however they want about them. If you’ve done your job, they’ll feel something. And that’s your job!
Thanks for reading and Save the Cat (or Dog) from your local shelter, not in your script!
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