One Thousand Words on Save the Cat

Earlier this week I read a blog, which I now can’t find and properly credit, that discussed the importance of ensuring the protagonist in your book or short story was likeable.

The blog’s author said that he was well into a book when he realized that he didn’t care about the main character, so he stopped reading. He also said that the first time you meet a main character of a book it should be in a “save the cat” moment.

This idea is probably well known in writer circles. Maybe it’s considered a trick by some but vital by others. But I’d never heard the term before. It means the hero should do something nice the first time we meet him or her, in order for the reader to become invested.

So what does that mean for my “Might Possibly Become a Novel” (MPBAN)? I haven’t written the first scene with the protagonist yet, and frankly I’m beginning to wonder who the protagonist really is. Originally it was Daniel, but there’s something about Sebastian that keeps speaking to me.

Anyway, no matter who wins that race I’ve been trying to imagine what form of “save the cat” scene would work. I can’t imagine Daniel climbing a tree to save a kitten or Sebastian pulling an old lady from in front of a speeding bus.

I decided to do a little research, to see if books I enjoy have a “save the cat” moment and if so, what the look like.

I pulled three random books off my shelf. These are books that I liked well enough to keep rather than passing on to a friend or the senior center.

First is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

I read The Lacuna last spring, I think. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did I couldn’t put it down. The protagonist of the book is Harrison Shepherd. We are introduced to Harrison as a child and he is simply called “the boy” or “the son” for the first thirty pages or so.

The first time we meet him as “the boy,” Harrison is afraid of monkeys that are howling in the Mexican dawn and then he’s swimming with fish in the ocean.

I just re-read six pages and didn’t find a “save the cat” moment, although the boy is lonely. That loneliness makes him sympathetic and likeable which, I suppose, is the whole point of such a moment. Harrison doesn’t do anything specifically nice, though.

But I remember that I didn’t really care about the character until later in the book, when he had a name and the writing became a little less flowery.

SO I reread a few pages after the first transition in The Lacuna, where I started to get into the book in earnest, and didn’t find an overt “save the cat” moment there either. Just a likeable little boy. So I guess Barbara Kingsolver didn’t rely on the trick.

Next is Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton. I actually read this book because I share a last name with one of the characters. I had never seen my name in a book, so it was a novelty even though the character isn’t very pleasant.

Mr. Toppit
is the story of the children of a novelist whose books become wildly successful after his death. Everyone assumes the son is the hero of his father’s books. They even share a first name, Luke. It would sort of be like everyone thinking JK Rowling’s son was Harry Potter.

I would say Luke is the protagonist of Mr. Toppit and we meet him on the very first page.

Luke also doesn’t have an overt “save the cat” moment. But, like Harrison, it’s his situation and his voice that caused me to like him.

Luke immediately talks about the books that dictated his childhood and still dictate his life. He doesn’t seem to resent the situation, but is more resigned to it.

That lack of control, along with the idea the reader has in the back of his or her head that it would be kind of cool to be the inspiration for a character in a popular series of books, makes him likeable. There’s no overt action that creates that sympathy.

The next book I grabbed was Tales of The City by Armistead Maupin.

I have to admit that I haven’t read Tales of the City in a long time, but I have read almost the entire series. The latest, Mary Ann in Autumn, is sitting on my ‘to be read’ shelf. I’ve enjoyed other non-Tales books too, especially The Night Listener.

So I had to take a few minutes to read a bit of the book before writing about it. It’s amazing how it grabs you from the very first page.

Tales of the City
is about Mary Ann Singleton who moves from Cleveland to San Francisco. She moves into an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane and meets all kinds of fabulous people.

The first few pages of the book, where we meet Mary Ann, has her vacationing in San Francisco and calling her mother to tell her that she won’t be returning to Cleveland.

Although this isn’t a “save the cat” moment in that she’s doing something nice for someone else, I think Mary Ann is the cat in this case. The reader sympathizes immediately because Mary Ann is making a life for herself, setting out on her own, and we can tell from the conversation with her mom that it has been a long time coming.

This brief look at three books is incredibly unscientific, but my conclusion is that a strict interpretation of “save the cat” isn’t necessary.

Sure, the protagonist has to be likeable, but there are many way to achieve that. You don’t have to write an over-the-top heroic moment to make your lead character sympathetic.

Maybe it’s just enough like the character yourself and let that shine through in your writing.

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