Image: Matthew Loffhagen
How do you go about introducing a protagonist, let alone introducing a hero? First impressions are even more long-lasting in fiction than in real life, and your reader’s first experience with your protagonist is likely to define how they understand everything that comes after. That means it’s important to give a clear impression, guaranteeing you’re on the same page as your reader for what follows.
There are a lot of ways to go when this is your goal, but in this article I’ll be focusing on a ‘save the cat’ introduction, and why it might be a great fit for your hero. I should note here that I’m not referencing Blake Snyder’s book of the same name, itself a reference to this device. That’s what I’m not talking about, anyway, so what do I mean by ‘save the cat’?
What is a ‘save the cat’ introduction?
A ‘save the cat’ introduction is when a character performs a small, but notable, act of kindness in order to ingratiate them to the reader. The name references a hero rescuing someone’s pet from a perilous situation, but also applies to actions such as giving money to a homeless person, gifting their ticket to someone stranded at a train station, or handing their ice-cream to a child who’s just dropped their own.
Often, a ‘save the cat’ introduction is rolled into a larger moment of action or risk. The 2004 movie Hellboy does this literally, as the hero saves a box of kittens during a monster attack. His decision to perform an act of kindness while under threat suggests to the audience that he’s inherently kind (not to mention brave). The effectiveness of this scene earned it an honorable mention in the ‘Save the Cat’ category of CineFix’s 10 Best Character Introductions of All Time.
This introduction is a great choice for authors because it’s relatively self-contained – ‘saving the cat’ can be a brief action folded into an existing scene, and allows you to create a lasting impression without giving much away. When the hero saves the cat, we’ve learnt about their disposition, but nothing else. This can be ideal for dark or complex heroes, or for authors who want to start with a murky or dangerous scene – no need to slow things down so the reader can learn to like the hero, just add a detail to immediately get them on side.Have a character ‘save the cat’ to immediately endear them to the reader.Click To Tweet
As CineFix mention in their video, a ‘save the cat’ introduction has become something of a cliché, but that statement is a little misleading. Having your hero perform an obvious act of chivalry in their first scene is cliché because the reader will pick up on it, but slightly more subtle writing allows the device to remain effective. The less it seems like the problem is just there to make the hero look good, the less cliché it will appear – the ‘folding’ method I’ve mentioned before is really useful here, as you can find a way to more fully enmesh the act in other story elements, making it feel natural.
So that’s why you should consider introducing a hero with the ‘save the cat’ moment, but what about less squeaky clean protagonists? Well, there’s a variation for them as well.
What is a ‘pet the dog’ introduction?
A ‘pet the dog’ introduction is a variation of the ‘save the cat’ introduction meant to endear antiheroes and complex antagonists to the reader. Here, it’s not necessarily about performing a notable act, but rather about showing the potential for kindness.
The idea is that if an antihero or sympathetic antagonist pets a dog during their introduction, the reader sees them in a positive light and develops a kernel of empathy that can withstand much worse behavior. It doesn’t have to be much – just an assurance that there’s a potential for good, deep down.
Of course, a ‘pet the dog’ moment can be just as extreme as a ‘save the cat’ moment. In Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, for instance, the reader is assured that ‘to do our hero justice, he had a sympathetic heart and never refrained from presenting a beggar with alms’. The key difference between saving the cat and petting the dog is that the former is a statement of purpose – it defines, to some extent, the character’s virtue – whereas the latter is a counter to the character’s other actions.
The very same act, given the differing context of who a character is and what they do next, can say ‘this person is good’ or ‘this person isn’t all bad’. Another use for a ‘pet the dog’ introduction is to show that an outright villain is acting with purpose. A hired assassin, for instance, may be both antagonist and villain, but a writer might want to convey that they’re in it for the money. Giving them a ‘pet the dog’ introduction therefore makes it clear that they’re not evil, they’re just willing to do something awful for personal gain.Writing a cold and calculating assassin? A happy dog might just sell the moment.Click To Tweet
Using a ‘pet the dog’ introduction in this way doesn’t necessarily have to endear an antagonist to the reader – clarifying their potential for good could be used to make them seem even colder, and more dangerous, when they choose to do bad things.
Household pets have helped us introduce heroes, antiheroes, and sympathetic villains so far. It makes sense that they can also introduce the worst of the worst but, be warned, they’re going to fare a lot worse for doing so.
What is a ‘kick the dog’ introduction?
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.Click To Tweet
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.
Can you ‘subvert the cat’?
The ‘kick the dog’ moment is one which is intended to make the reader hate a character, but many stories have used it more creatively. Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur and TV series House of Cards both begin with their protagonists killing dogs, a bold move which allows them to instantly draw in the reader and ask emotional questions.
In Tyrannosaur, for example, the protagonist kicks his dog in a drunken rage and then, realizing what he has done, picks it up and tenderly carries it home. Roger Ebert explains the complex use of the device in his review.
In an opening scene, he gets pissed off in a Yorkshire pub, storms out and kicks his dog so hard he has to carry the dog home. Carrying the dog is his kindness. Kicking it is his nature.
– Roger Ebert, ‘Tyrannosaur’
House of Cards, on the other hand, has its duplicitous main character kill a dog as a shocking representation of his personal philosophy. Not only that, but his level, direct narration to the viewer – when no other character knows what he has done – suggests that they are complicit in his terrible act and, by extension, will be his shadowy confidante in the misdeeds to come.
Likewise, petting the dog can be used to punctuate the meaninglessness of violence. If a character has performed a truly terrible act – the kind the reader can’t imagine forgiving – then having them pet a dog is meaningless, but meaningless in a way that highlights the lack of meaning. This can be used to indicate that a character really doesn’t have a moral compass, or that the world itself is random and chaotic.
Saving the cat is often subverted when the act of heroism is futile or fails. If a character runs into a burning building to save someone’s pet but doesn’t emerge, or a relatively small act of kindness is contrasted against wider destruction, an author can ask the reader searching questions about the value and nature of virtue.
This subversion is used frequently in Garth Ennis’ The Boys, in which the titular group is formed with the intent of limiting the frequent misbehavior of superheroes. The story frequently eschews the contrast between good and evil, spending more time on the idea of competence versus incompetence. To drive this home, the superheroes’ acts of heroism often pale in comparison to the collateral damage and societal corruption caused by their mere existence.
It’s your cat
Saving, petting, kicking or subverting a pet may be a great way to introduce your characters, or it may not suit your story at all. Like all the devices we write about, though, it’s always worth knowing more so that even if you decide it’s not for you, you do so from an informed position.
Remember, as well, that every literary device can be stripped for parts. Maybe you don’t want to save a cat in the introduction, but you can see a use for it elsewhere. Maybe you want to make a reader aware of an opportunity to save the cat, but have your hero walk on by, increasing their mystique rather than defining their temperament.
Above all, the rule is ‘whatever works’, and considering whether you want a cat – and how you want your characters to treat it – is a consideration which is likely to open a lot of doors in your story. Go ahead and try it now; the cat is your oyster. Or, wait, no…
Do you think saving the cat still has a place in modern stories, or was Hitchcock right about changing tastes? Let me know in the comments, and check out “Start With The Action!” – What It Means And When You Should Do It, Is A Character Sketch The Best Way To Introduce Your Characters? and Is The Halo Effect Exactly What Your Characters Need? for more advice on effective character introduction.