Get Agents to Like Your Characters and Keep Reading

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that one of my favorite books on writing is Save the Cat (and it’s not even a WD book, so you know I’m telling the truth). SAVE THE CAT is a modern-day look at structure and story, written by screenwriter Blake Snyder, a wonderful man who passed away recently at the much-too-young age of 52.

 


So why is the book called Save the Cat? One of Snyder’s most basic points is that we (readers) must like the character we’re following. If we see the protagonist do something kind or admirable in the first few minutes/pages, then we will like him. And if we like him, we follow his story and root for him to succeed in getting what he wants.

I recently read some pages from a novel-in-progress. I had some typical notes: “This is good … this doesn’t work … cut, cut, cut.” But the big point was that the protagonist was unlikable. When we first meet the main character, they seem annoyed, and in the middle of a frustrating relationship. We cannot be introduced to characters like this, because why would we keep following a character that is constantly agitated and generally unhappy? We need to root for them, and that’s what the Save the Cat moment is all about. So let’s look at some movies and identify early Save the Cat moments.

Miss Congeniality

Sandra Bullock is on a sting to catch a mobster. When agents ID themselves and hold the mobster at gunpoint, he starts to choke. But is he really choking, or is it a ruse? It’s not clear. None of the male agents move, but Sandra scurries in to help the choking man. She cares; she has compassion. That’s a perfect Save the Cat moment.

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The Hangover

This movie is essentially about three guys trying to find a fourth guy who’s lost just before his wedding day. So which one of the three is the main character? The answer: None. The main character is actually Doug, the groom-to-be who’s lost. The Save the Cat moment is very early when he invites his new wacky stepbrother, Alan, to Vegas, even though he doesn’t have to. This makes us like Doug. And if we like him, then we root for him to succeed. To succeed means to get married. To do that, we root for his friends to find him in time for his wedding. Save the Cat.



Nottingham

A few years ago, a screenwriter re-envisioned the Robin Hood legend as told from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s point of view. In this (unproduced) screenplay, the story begins with a battle. Meanwhile, underground, an Army Leader (actually the sheriff: our protagonist) is leading troops through tunnels for some kind of surprise attack. He stops for a moment to address his men, only to see that instead of looking at him, they’re all staring at something else. It’s the bucket of water he’s holding. It’s clear that they’re parched. He takes off his own helmet and pours some water in it, instructing them to pass the helmet around and take one sip a piece. The whole thing takes about 7 seconds, and it makes us like this man. Save the Cat.

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Sea of Love

I’ve never seen this movie, but this is the film where Blake Snyder identifies a perfect Save the Cat moment. At the beginning, Al Pacino, a cop, is arresting New York criminals who arrive at a location thinking they’re going to meet some Yankees. When Pacino sees that the next approaching criminal has his young son in tow, Pacino makes himself visible, showing his badge. The criminal sees this, and tells his son that there’s been a change of plans, walking away. Pacino says “… Catch you later.” This is great. It shows Pacino is a tough cop but willing to give this criminal a break because of the kid, but the criminal is not off the hook. Save the Cat.

Recognize other Save the Cat moments in film or books? Let me know.

 

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16 thoughts on “Get Agents to Like Your Characters and Keep Reading

  1. Lynne Spreen

    I discovered Save the Cat a while back and thought, "this is almost the greatest thing I’ve ever read" about structuring your book to be a viable product. I went to find Blake Snyder online to subscribe to anything he did, I was so thrilled. And I learned he had died a few days earlier! The response I got on his behalf sounded stunned. I was, too; also sad for his family and friends, but I will always feel attached to him in a weird way. Glad you brought him up.

  2. Paul Greci

    Great Post, Chuck. I took a workshop with Blake Snyder a couple of years ago. The whole Save the Cat concept helped me rethink some of my characters and how I was introducing them. Now when I watch a movie I always look for the Save the Cat moment at the beginning. Thanks!

  3. Beth

    I like Rick in Casablanca when he helps the girl’s husband win at the tables so she doesn’t have to deal with the captain to get out of Casablanca. His staff loves him for doing what’s right, and so does the audience.

  4. Laura Sibson

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve been struggling with the first page of my otherwise complete novel and now I know why. I haven’t hit on the best way to introduce my character. Your advice helps me understand some of the feedback I’ve received.

  5. Susan Carleton

    Thank you! I hadn’t thought of it before, but that *is* a familiar device. True, it’s not always there and it isn’t necessary to make us connect with a character, but when it’s there it works.

    Funny enough, the first film that came to my mind is what my children just finished watching: the Incredibles. Bob could have come across as an arrogant show-off in that first scene– except that he quite literally saves a cat, an old lady’s cat stuck in a tree, so we know that deep down he loves helping people. After reading this, I had to laugh.

  6. Theresa Milstein

    I’ve heard main characters have to be likable to draw in the reader, but I never thought of it in this way. Once, I was told by an agent that she couldn’t connect to my main character. I wonder if that was the problem.

    Poor Harry Potter forced to live in a spider-infested cupboard under a stairwell is an obvious way to make a character sympathetic.

  7. Maggie Dana

    Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. At first, Olive is not a particularly likable woman, but she displays humanity, albeit awkwardly, in the first chapter, and despite her being curmudgeonly from then on, we still like her. Or at least I did.

  8. Chuck Sambuchino

    Characters can be flawed and complex, sure.

    Let’s look at an example: Meryl Streep in DOUBT. She is intriguing, but she is not friendly. She’s a disciplinarian. But remember that moment during the first dinner where she helps the blind nun find her fork? That is Save the Cat.

  9. MaryWitzl

    There really are some characters you root for even when you don’t necessarily like them, perhaps because they’re strong-willed and determined (Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone With the Wind’) or incredibly vulnerable and naive (Stevens in ‘Remains of the Day’). Although I’m all for cats being saved, literally and figuratively, and want to like the protagonist, I agree with Orna that there’s more to it than that.

    I’ve got to have that book, though — the cover alone is great.

  10. Livia Blackburne

    This is great Chuck. I’ve never thought about it that way before. Save the Cat moments work well for minor characters too, as a way to introduce them as likeable in a short amount of time. For example, in the Hunger Games, Katliss is sentenced to a deathmatch. When her stylist Cinna comes in, one of the first things he says is "We must seem dispicable to you." This immediately establishes him as different as the other people who are sentencing her to death.

  11. Bren

    As a writer who has many ideas not yet on paper, I found this very helpful in deciding how to introduce my protagonist in my first novel. It has been started and scratched many times, and now I know why it hasn’t seemed quite ‘right’. Thank you.

  12. Kristan

    Ditto what Orna said. Even if the character is just really interesting in some way, a reader might connect.

    That said, I do find it hard (i.e., impossible) to read when a protagonist annoys or disgusts me. Like pedophile? Sorry, no can do. Totally shallow woman who horribly mistreats people? Nope, you lost me.

    It’s not that those characters can’t exist in the story, but it’s very difficult to start with them, or to stay with them for a whole book.

    So yeah. Likeability. For whatever reason. You gotta have that connection.

  13. Orna Ross

    Jane Eyre? Pip in Great Expectations? Mrs Dalloway? Dorothea in Middlemarch? Bridget Jones?

    I agree that we must connect with the character but the mysteries of human connection are complex.

    Embarrassment for the protagonist can be a ‘rooter’ for a reader. Fear for their wellbeing. Sympathy for their plight. And many other emotions.

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