First or last impressions?
It is debatable which matter more in real life – with people you get to know and get close to… Have you ever wondered?
These days Instagrammers, Snapchatters, and Facebookers will go to great lengths to manufacture fake versions of their lives (some would call them stories!) to make a fake impression on their audiences – just like certain politicians who will eagerly embrace alternative facts.
As a result, audiences become desensitized. We lose trust in the authenticity of what we see, hear and read. We no longer believe first impressions and we no longer believe the characters that populate stories… It is a high price to pay for likes, follows and emojis.
How do you make a new character believable?
To put the social media and political fakeland aside, first impressions do make a significant difference when you introduce your protagonist (the character at the centre of the story) and antagonist (the character who stands in opposition to the protagonist) for the very first time in the narrative.
‘Save the cat’
It was Blake Snyder who came up with a device that can be used to bring a character into the story. He called it ‘save the cat’ and it is the moment at the beginning of the story when we meet the character and he/she does something nice (e.g. saves a cat). It may be a small act of kindness (which does not reveal too much about the depth of the character) but it is enough to make us like him/her. The ‘save the cat’ moment should be enmeshed in riskier and grander events that the character really belongs to, but – however marginal – it makes us want to root for the character and invest ourselves into his/her story. The message is: „This is a nice person. I want to follow his/her story.”
Have a look at some ‘save the cat’ examples from films here:
‘Pet the dog’
If you want the audience to take to your villain and notice a trace of goodness in an otherwise dark character, use a twist on ‘save the cat’ instead: a ‘pet the dog’ moment. Let your malevolent character perform a subtle act of goodness, acting out of character for a split second early on in the story. In consequence, the audience is likely to embrace his/her flaws as the incident softens the edge of the villain. The message here is: “This character is not wholly evil. I want to follow his/her story to find out more.” Even if Dr House is a jerk and a narcissist, there are things about him that the audience notices and recognizes as likeable or acceptable, to say the least.
‘Kick the dog’
The first two devices put the audience on the side of your characters. The third device – used to build believable villains – is called ‘kick the dog’. It is the exact opposite of ‘save the cat’ and establishes the villain as the darkest character imaginable.
‘Kick the dog’ is a moment at the beginning of the story when the villain does something incredibly cruel, unnecessary and unforgivable. It forces us to hate the character in an instant. The message is: „This person is evil to the core.” Remember the opening scene from House of Cards where Frank shoots a dog? The ‘kick the dog’ moment needs to happen early on, be short and reveal something important about the character’s mindset.
Well, so these are three recipes for introducing a character by smuggling in additional information – disguised as an incident – that makes audience empathize or sympathize with a purely fictional figure.
To find out how to flip the devices and ‘subvert the cat’ (i.e. use the technique more creatively to play on the audience’s perception of the character), read this post by Robert Wood on Standoutbooks.com
In the classroom?
Now, when crafting the next story for your classroom, remember to have an imaginary chat with your protagonist and antagonist first to decide at which point they enter the story and how significant cats and dogs are going to be for that part of the narrative 😉 If you play the pet part well, your students will either side with the characters or remain fiercely opposed to them, but they will never ever lose interest in their stories.