Save The Cat Paradox

From what I gather about Save the Cat (having seen some videos but never read the book) is that one method for getting the audience on the side of your character is to show him sacrifice something to help someone else. (Point being, it’s not about saving the cat at all, but giving something up that you worked hard to get… but that’s a crappy book title.)

Classic example: Aladdin steals a loaf of bread and evades scimitar-wielding guards in order to enjoy it, only to then give half of it away to a pair of children who are begging on the street and are much worse off than he is. Now we like him, because even though he’s a thief, he’s not selfish and does good.

Enter the MC Problem of Self-Aware.

I’ve got a character entirely driven by his own selfish needs, and for the first time ever am hearing “I don’t know if he’s likable.” But I can’t have him do something to help someone else at the beginning because he had no ability to do that until the end of the movie.

In the pre-STC days, “make him likable” was solved by giving the character a dog. I can’t do this either. Why? Because his wife has a dog, which he later kills—on purpose, immediately turning off half of my audience.

So… what to do? Obviously, there are some people I will never win over vis-a-vis the dog thing, but I should be able to generate more sympathy/empathy/likability for the character before that happens.

Any suggestions?


Hmm … I’ve heard that another way to look at this is to ask if the character is capable of love – for anything. Like, is he passionate about achieving something in a way that the audience can empathize with or relate to?

Another option that sometimes works for anti-heroes sometimes is to make the character in some way self-aware, ideally with some humor…

I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.

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There are lots of characters we like who would not be likeable people. And saving the cat is really just about signalling to the audience who they are supposed to be rooting for.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock isn’t a particularly likeable person, but it’s a character many love. The first thing Sherlock does is baffle Lestrade allowing Lestrade to tell the audience how brilliant and clever Sherlock is…a signal for the audience to root for this character to be brilliant and clever.

If you want a STC moment, find something about the character that you can telegraph to the audience that they are supposed to root for him to do or be and then give him opportunities to do that every now and then.

Aladdin doesn’t just feed the hungry kids. He also tells that one guy on the horse that he could afford some manners as he stops him from whipping one of the peasants or whatever. And he stops the guy in the market from chopping off Jasmine’s hand. We don’t just like him because even though he’s a thief, he gives bread to hungry kids. We like him because we can count on him to be a scoundrel who does the right thing.

Even though Sherlock is a jerk, we can count on him to be clever and brilliant.

I don’t know if that works for Change characters as well as steadfast, but it’s what comes to mind.

Michael Hauge had something on this at one time.

He said there were 4-5 techniques for getting audience/reader buy-in on a character.

Those were:

Likeability — a nice person
Skill/expertise — they are good at something
Sympathetic — the victim of some undeserved misfortune
Jeopardy — they are in danger of loss of anything of vital importance to the character

Maybe one of those will work for you? My guess is probably the last one. I always go back and watch the opening to the Chronicles of Riddick if I think I need to introduce an unlikable character. He maybe obnoxious, but there are always worse.

One more thought, the opening of Dexter, where he establishes his code and his meticulousness would also work.


I think this guy in this video gives great tips on writing interesting evil characters:

And also here:

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This one seems to work quite nicely here!

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Ironically, this is the whole issue: he’s so driven to accomplish something that he comes off as selfish. (Again, not universally. Only to a couple readers.)

I’m not sure if I would call him an anti-hero, but there is a bit of this. He says talks about what he needs at one point, and says, “It’s not deep, but it’s true.”

That’s a really good point.

Well, you’ve read it, so this may ring a bell: I try to have him only work on his songs when there is nothing else to do—he always prioritizes the crisis. In an odd way, I wonder if complaining that he has to prioritize patching up the house will make people notice that he is putting his personal needs second. (instictively, this works a bit with self-aware but I’m not sure I believe it will work.)

He’s very good at something, kind of the victim of undeserved misfortune (but you don’t know what until the climax, so it’s hard to lean into that), he’s funny and in jeopardy of losing something incredibly important to him! Ack!

Iglesias wrote my favorite book on writing in my pre-Dramatica days.

I’ll watch the vids now.


Yeah, I’ve been pondering what would work for it. As fast as I read the first draft, I still haven’t had a chance to get to the second, but I will eventually.

With another reading, I may come up with something better, but right now here’s what I’m thinking.

What this guy wants, more or less, is an audience. But because of reasons, he refuses to play for anyone, even gets upset when his wife invites people over to the house. Because he IS the movie goers experience, maybe the audience doesnt want to see him play either because that’s what dealing with the problem looks like to them. And if we’re going with the “something to root for” idea, well, it’s hard to root for someone NOT to do something. And then if the one time he does play for someone (at the dinner table with the silverware on the glasses), maybe it comes off kind of like “I don’t want to do this, but I’m going to show you how awesome I am”, which might be kind of unlikeable.

But if we know he wants an audience right up front, then maybe it would be easier to empathize with him, like Lakis was saying.

Hope I’m not giving away too much here, but the opening scene has him carrying his guitar case full of tools as he avoids playing his guitar by fixing the curtain rod. But maybe we find out—and Im not sure how to get this to come across on screen—maybe we find out that he’s working in front of the window and the window is like a stage, and all the begonias or whatever on the other side of the window are bobbing up and down like head banging fans and he enjoys this. And he’s about to do a little air guitar on the curtain rod when it falls apart in his hands and he’s snapped out of it and quickly puts his tools away. And now we know what he wants and we can root for him to play for an audience. And since I think he was a changed character, maybe he has a few opportunities to see himself as playing for an audience but bails on it right up until that’s the only thing that can solve the problem. And then we’re excited for him because he saved the day, but he also did the thing we’ve been hoping he would do since the first scene.

There’ll be a third draft very soon.

I took out the guitar-case tool box (would he want any association with his guitar?) but him holding it and the curtains open, silhouetting him in shining light… that’s a good image.

You could say the dog had a condition, revealed to the audience and other story characters at the end, that showed a mc sherlock holmes type analysis that death would be better? (Maybe, one of the other family member’s fault, even? So hiding the all was compassion for that person, etc.)

When you asked for examples, something kept prickling the back of my mind’s memory. After reading responses, it came to me. There was a film that a family member had seen in the 1950’s and was so struck by it, she told me all about it. I have never seen the film, but what she told me stayed with me to this day. The written plot summary doesn’t capture it entirely, but what she told me sounded emotionally like what you are going after. The film is Cowboy 1958 with Glenn Ford.

Thanks, I’ll check it out.

That’s not an Ack! I think Hauge recommended using a combination of at least 3.

Obviously I don’t know much about this story so this might be off-base, but I love the idea of a guitar-case tool box idea, which (assuming I understand) hints at a kind of masochism that’s potentially painful, funny and endearing. (He doesn’t want to play, but has to remind himself of it).

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Thinking of the husband with his saxaphone that we bought two years ago because he wants to learn to play it, a dream of his that I didn’t know about,etc: It can sit there because he wants to play but hasn’t gotten to the point of practicing at home.

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I believe in Save the Cat they talk about Kick the Dog. Where the anti-hero does something really terrible early on, but they do it in a charismatic way or add a little flair.

From a website that quotes the book:

A ‘kick the dog’ or ‘kick the cat’ introduction is the polar opposite of the ‘save the cat’ moment. Here, a vile and hateful character performs an act of unnecessary cruelty, rendering them irredeemable in the reader’s eyes. This is a great device if you want a reader to hate someone from the start, but lack a compelling narrative reason for them to do something repellent. Simply give them the opportunity to do something mean and don’t justify it for the reader.

Again, writing a ‘kick the dog’ introduction courts cliché. Alfred Hitchcock himself wasn’t a fan, and he had a point when he inadvertently named the device.

In the old days villains had mustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.

– Alfred Hitchcock

That said, there are still moments when a ‘kick the dog’ introduction is called for. Often, for example, an author may want their antagonist to be larger than life. John Niven’s The Amateurs features sadistic crime lord Ranta Campbell, who is introduced with a stunning scene of torture – something he performs just to prove a point. It’s a moment that renders Ranta so terrifying that he is able to exist as a constant threat from then on; an antagonist who doesn’t need much of the reader’s time and attention to stay scary and influential.

Sometimes, it only takes one terrible act to establish an effective antagonist.

As with saving the cat, kicking the dog isn’t the most subtle device, but it can effectively deliver a guaranteed reaction in stories that would otherwise have to add filler scenes or warp the plot to the same ends. Of course, as with any other long-standing device, all of the above techniques can be subverted.

Tarantino has also commented on the whole “your character has to be likable” approach to storytelling and had some really poignant things to say about how that’s a load of BS. There was an interview he did where he talks about the difference between Bill Murray and Chevy Chase movies. From a Dramatica standpoint, it sounds like he doesn’t like Changed characters and prefers Steadfasts. But at the same time, he was pointing out how Chevy Chase characters are often “unlikable jerks” but you still “like” them.
I say lean into his unlikable nature, the same way you would a really good villain. Darth Vader isn’t going around saving cats. He’s choking Rebels and torturing princesses, and we love him for it.

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Just to be clear, I don’t have an anti-hero.

In this last draft, I stepped up his self-aware nature, but at the same time removed a scene where he is careless about other people. Being selfish doesn’t mean you also want to take from other people, right?

I’ve been thinking about Vince Vaughn, who I think generally plays selfish, arrogant pricks with great success. But that’s not right either, because this guy isn’t selfish and a jerk so much as he’s consumed with overcoming a huge failure. This makes me want to lean into the “he’s suffered a huge injustice” plan @mlucas put forward… but I also worry that I have misinterpreted the character and he’s a bigger jerk than I think he is, haha!

It means you are focused on your wants and needs, like a horse wearing those blinders, imho. (in my hypothosis opinion)

We’re all bigger jerks than we think … too much time this past year observing the ants coming into and going around inside the house, almost like pets with us being the big jerks.

The first thing I’d consider is: what do you like about this guy? Is there an aspect of his character you find especially endearing? If so, you might try giving a few flashes of it early on to prime your audience’s empathy. If, on the other hand, you find yourself drawing a blank, then that in and of itself may be your problem. You can’t really expect your audience to like your MC any better than you do.

Alternately, if your MC’s problem is Self-Aware, you might ask yourself: how is this trait benefitting him? After all, if it weren’t adding something valuable to his life, he’d have given it up at the first sign of trouble.

Maybe he’s so comically self-absorbed that his wife finds it charming.

Maybe he’s got a knack for self-deprecating humor, since he’s so intimately aware of his own flaws.

Maybe his self-awareness makes him uniquely honest, since he’d never lie to himself about his own intentions, no matter how bad they might be.

Maybe his self-centeredness helps him navigate a career in a particularly cutthroat industry.

Lastly, you could go the pathetic route: show how this Self-Awareness thing is completely and totally ruining this guy’s life. He’s about to lose his job because he’s so self-conscious he can’t even bring himself to speak up in the office. He’s so self-focused he doesn’t even realize his wife’s on the brink of asking him for a divorce. Danger is looming over his head and he’s too wrapped up in his own nonsense to notice. He’s the character in the scary movie checking out that noise in the basement.

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“Likable” is like fools gold. Reader’s who gravitate to that terminology really don’t understand what they’re talking about, particularly with regards to storytelling and slap a term on something as a result.

The key here is, in fact, understanding. It’s empathy. You want your reader to empathize, which means understand the “why” of your character’s predicament.

One of the brilliant things I love about A Christmas Carol and a character like Scrooge is he’s so UNLIKABLE to begin with, but the audience doesn’t have to wait too long to start understanding why because the first of his three visits is the Ghost of Christmas Past which begins to show us the why.

Regarding the dog bit: I killed a dog early in a farce (well, whether it was really a dog was left to interpretation as it was never seen until the end.) You can pull of an act like that by having other characters in the story frame the action in a different light. They could despise the dog. Believe it needs to be put out of its misery. Call it a hell-hound. Your MC could kill it without necessarily even know what other people think and not realizing he’s doing them a favor which fits perfectly with the MC Problem of Self-Aware.

Obviously, those are just examples and the context of the what is dependent on your story and genre.


What I’ve realized by going over my notes again is that people lose empathy after the midpoint, so it’s really become a question of maintaining empathy.

Your list is extremely helpful, and I’m going to seize upon this one:

I hate to disagree with this one, but no. One of Pixar’s brain trust guys is infamous for saying, “We’ve got to fucking love this guy” when referring to the central characters. It just means, “do I want to root for him?”

I probably made a mistake mixing two things into my post – my script’s problems and the Save the Cat reference.

This has sparked an idea, thanks! He can be accused of doing it for selfish reasons—and that really fits in well—when in reality, he’s doing it for the benefit of everyone. It works well for the arc, too.