May 3, 2018 / 1 Comment

Dogs and Cats! Living Together!

            Pop culture reference!  From a movie I used to love and now have mixed feelings toward because of a bunch of internet trolls.
            But anyway…
            I was working on a rough outline for a book I’m hoping to write next year, and it occurred to me that I’d written a classic device into the story. About halfway through the book, my protagonist saves her cat.
            …in a really clever and freaky way, I assure you.
            You’ve heard that phrase before, yes?  Saving the cat?  I’ve talked about it here once or twice, and this little incident made me think it might be worth mentioning again.
            “Saving the cat” is a term screenwriter Blake Snyder came up with many years ago.  It’s when my character does something simple and quick early on in my story that gets everyone on their side.  The example Snyder uses is saving a cat.  My heroine sees a cat stuck in a tree, she gets the cat out of the tree.  No big deal, moving on, right?  It’s just a simple action or moment that assures my readers that this character is an overall decent human being.
            (fun fact—“saving the cat” is a reference to Ripley saving Jones in Alien. Seriously.  Look it up.)
            Remember in the first Captain America movie, when scrawny Steve Rogers stands up to Hodge out behind the movie theater, even though Hodge is twice his size?  That’s a saving the cat moment.  How about in Wesley Chu’s The Rise of Io, when the title character makes a point of sharing her food with the mangy dog that hangs around outside her apartment?  Or when poor unloved Harry Potter sympathizes with the snake in the zoo about being raised in captivity? 
            All of these are save the cat moments.  They’re small, almost inconsequential things that rarely have repercussions in the larger plot. But they affect how we view the character.
            Now, here’s two key things to remember when I’m playing around with a save the cat moment.  First, as I mentioned before, they almost always come fairly early in my story.  Second. the reader has never been against the character who’s having this moment.  Because saving the cat isn’t about changing my reader’s opinion of this person, it’s about emphasizing their opinion.  It’s a shortcut to help my reader like them more and get invested in them sooner so I can move on to bigger and better things.  The plot, for example.
            Why do I mention these key things?
            Well, there’s another device that mistakenly sometimes get lumped in with saving the cat, but it’s really the exact opposite.  It’s not even a device so much as a bad habit some people have.  It’s called patting the dog.  This is when one of my characters does a small token thing late in the story and it’s supposed to make up for the numerous awful things we’ve seen said character do up ‘til this point.
            See, patting the dog is usually third-act type stuff, because I’ve spent all my story up til now establishing this character in a certain way, that they have certain beliefs and loyalties.  And the whole point of patting the dog is to then reverse how my reader feels about this person.  If up until now, we wanted to see them dead under a bulldozer, at this point we should cheer for them.  This one small act’s supposed to cause an emotional 180 in the reader.
            Like I said, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of saving the cat.
            It’s worth noting—patting the dog is almost always applied to antagonists.  Usually as some kind of twist to turn the bad guy into some sort of anti-hero, or even a full on hero.  When Wakko murders a dozen families and their children, but then realizes killing *this* person would be wrong… that’s patting the dog.  Same with the evil cheerleader who’s made Dot’s four years of high school a living nightmare, but then decides to chip and help make posters for a bake sale.  So’s the evil villain’s loyal lieutenant who tortures and maims our hero’s friends, but then discovers he has some vague relationship with the protagonist and decides to turn on his boss of ten years.       
            Now, this isn’t to say I can’t reverse how my readers see one of my characters.  That’s one of the big goals in writing—to change how people think about things. But it’s never going to be a quick fix I can pull off with one paragraph.  It’s going to take lots of moments and a lot of work.  It’s a process that can’t be rushed.  Even if I’m doing it with a clever twist, the reader needs to look back and see that the seeds of this change stretch all through my story.
            Because you may remember the other word for when someone does a sudden change of beliefs and loyalties.  It’s called a betrayal.  And no one likes to be betrayed. 
            Even if it’s just by something they’re reading.
            Next time, I’d like to talk a bit about what’s going on in that other scene.
            Until then, go write. 
June 15, 2012 / 4 Comments

Patting the Dog

            Oh, get your minds out of the gutter.

            This week’s topic comes from a comedy sketch done many years ago by British comedian Benny Hill.  He’s best known in America for having lots of scantily clad women dancing around him, while the rest of the world also remembers his ability to rattle off some clever wordplay or jokes.  If I do this right, though, “patting the dog” will become a regular writing phrase and we’ll all get to give him credit for that, too.
            Many years back, Hill did a sketch where he played a foreign film director being interviewed by the press.  When asked about his new film (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), he explains in broken English that it’s a “deeply emotional tale of love and human kindness.”  When the interviewer prods him a bit, Hill goes into further detail.
            “It’s about a man who tries to leave the mob and sees his friends slaughtered by criminals with machetes.  So he tracks down the villains and kills them all.  Then he finds their boss and kills him in front of the man’s family.  Then he kills the man’s wife, and then his children.  Then he desecrates their bodies and, as he leaves, he sets fire to their home.”
            “I thought it was a deeply emotional tale of love and human kindness?”
            “It is,” insists Hill.  “As he walks out the door, he pats the dog on the head.”
            That got a big laugh from the studio audience.  And from me, even though I was only eleven and really watching the show for the scantily clad women.  It was clever enough to stick with me, even past those distractions.
            See, the studio audience and I both recognized the absurdity of what Hill’s character was suggesting—that one miniscule, token act could balance out, or even override, the atrocities he’d just described.  Patting the dog is a nice thing to do, yes, but in all honesty it’s kind of low on the scale.  Heck, for most of us it’s more of an automatic response than a deliberate act of kindness.  We see a dog and we pat him or her on the head.  That’s all there is to it.  We probably think more about tying our shoes in the morning.
            So the idea that patting the dog would make us completely change our views on this character or this story is… well, laughable.  It’s too little, too late.  It’s the weakest kind of spin job.
            And yet, how often have we seen this sort of thing in books or movies?  We’ll have a completely unlikable person who does nothing we can sympathize with or relate to.  Violent drug dealers, sadistic assassins, abusive spouses, jerk bosses, there’s dozens of characters that could fit this category.  And all too often, the writer will give them some tiny, banal moment that’s supposed to make us suddenly change how we feel about them.  They pat a dog.  They thank the guy who sells them their morning coffee.  They get drunk and confess their awful childhood.  They go to church and say their prayers.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m patting the dog, it means I’ve got a character who’s doing some small, token thing that’s supposed to counterbalance a lot of really awful things. And that just doesn’t work.  I can’t spend page after page making the audience feel one way about a character, then expect their views to completely shift because of one minor action.
            Now, at the risk of possible Armageddon, let’s mix dogs and cats
            I’ve mentioned the “save the cat” moment once or thrice.  This is Blake Snyder’s term for when a character does something small and quick early on in the story that gets us on their side.  His example of this is “saving the cat” (which some writers take way, way too literally) but it can be any number of things.  It’s just a simple action that assures us this person is a decent human being.  In my new book 14, the main character’s saving the cat moment is when he decides not to drown a cockroach.
            Here’s a well-known save the cat moment from the movie Robocop.  Remember when we see the still-human Murphy practicing his quick-draw and spinning his pistol into his holster?  He explains that he’s learning the trick for his son, who sees all the great cops on television do it and therefore assumes his dad should also be able to do it (because his dad must be a great cop).  And, Murphy tells his new partner with a grin, it is just kind of cool.  It’s a quick little moment, barely thirty seconds long and only about fifteen minutes into the film, but it establishes Murphy’s a good dad and an overall decent guy.
            Now, the big catch with a save the cat moment is that we’ve never been againstthis character.  Saving the cat has never been about changing our view of a person, it’s about emphasizing our view of them.  It’s just a shortcut to help the reader like them quicker so the writer can move on to more important things.  Like, say, the plot.
            A lot of folks try to have half-assed save the cat moments in their stories, but really they’re just patting the dog.  A couple easy ways to figure out which column my random act of kindness falls in…
–If everything I’ve done up till this point has been to make the character unlikable, then this moment is patting the dog.
–If it comes more than halfway through the story, odds are I’m patting the dog.
–If I’m trying to change the reader’s perception of my character with this moment, I’m just patting the dog.
            This isn’t to say I can’t reverse how my readers see one of my characters, but it’s not going to be a quick fix thing that I can do with one line.  It’s going to take lots of moments and a lot of work.  It’s a long process that can’t be rushed.  Even if I’m doing it with a clever twist, the reader needs to look back and see that the seeds of this change stretch all through my story.
            Because there’s another word for when someone does a sudden reversal like that.  It’s called a betrayal.  And no one likes to be betrayed.  Even if it’s just by characters in something they’re reading.
            Next time, I’d like to run some numbers by you real quick.
            Until then, go write.  And remember to thank Benny Hill.
April 20, 2012 / 3 Comments

Why Do We Like These Guys…?

            Sorry there wasn’t a post last week.  I got the galley proofs for my new book, 14 (available in June from Permuted Press), and I spent about six days going over them line by line.

            There’s a weird trend in advertising lately.  Have you noticed that most of the people we’re supposed to be rooting for in commercials are kind of… well,  jerks?  They’re rude.  They’re smug.  They do obnoxious things that are supposed to be cute.
            Of course, unlikable characters are nothing new on television or in books.  There are hundreds of characters who are jerks to an almost criminal degree, but we still like them.  You can trace it back for decades.  Centuries, even.
            Let me give you a few examples.
            Presented for your approval is one Homer J. Simpson.  He’s an alcoholic.  He’s rock-stupid.  He’s self-centered.  He subjects his kids to physical and emotional abuse.  He’s lazy to the point that he’s endangered countless lives in his hometown of Springfield, and a fair amount while traveling abroad, too.
           Here’s another one.  Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother.  Barney’s rude, misogynistic, very manipulative, and openly cruel sometimes.  When you consider the political climate these days, it’s worth noting that Barney is also a one-percenter who’s gleefully acknowledged eliminating jobs to increase profits at the multi-national corporation he works for.
            And, lest you think I’m not taking this seriously with all the sitcom references, let’s also add in Doctor Hannibal Lecter (the version from the novels, to be clear).   He’s a monster.  No two ways about it.  He’s a murderer who’s killed people in some truly horrific ways.  He’s tortured people.  And there’s his defining trait, of course… cannibalism.
            How could anyone possibly like any of these characters?  Heck, how is it that people end up rooting for them?  We laugh when Homer throttles his son, we cheer when Barney abandons the woman he just slept with, and we approve when we realize Lecter’s tracked down the asylum director who treated him like an animal for years.  Is there something wrong with all of us?
            Not really.  If we look at all of these folks, there’s certain key traits they all share that make for great characters.  More to the point, theses are traits that are almost always missing from characters that frustrate and annoy readers and/or audience members.
            Firstand foremost is honesty.  One of the main things we love about these characters is that they’re all true to themselves.  They know who they are and they see no need to hide it.  Nobody likes a hypocrite or someone who keeps switching sides.  It’s why we all grind our teeth over politicians who say one thing on Tuesday and then say the complete opposite on their next campaign stop.
            If Barney was constantly telling us what a sweet, caring guy he was we’d find him slimy at best, reprehensible at worst.  Part of what makes his womanizing acceptable—to us and his friends—is that he doesn’t deny it in any way.  He has no problem admitting what he does and even admits it may hurt some women … but he’s not there to deal with it, so what’s the big deal?  Homer’s almost gleeful about his alcoholism and has frequently fought the idea of trying to learn anything new.  Lecter doesn’t see any moral difference between eating a person and eating an animal, so he has no problem discussing the appetizers he set out for his unexpected guests.
            One mistake I see a lot of writers make is when their characters are telling us one thing but showing us another.  Yakko says he’s taking time off and trying to get his head together, but really he’s out cruising and screwing around every day.  Dot tells us she’s loyal to her husband but sleeps with three different guys from her office.  Wakko insists that he follows the rules to the letter, but we catch him cheating a dozen times during the game.  There are times this type of thing can work, but this kind of dishonesty can turn a reader against a character very quickly if it’s not handled right. 
            A similar problem is when writers think ambivalence is a character trait.  They have characters who are constantly unsure or second-guessing themselves or their actions.  That kind of self-doubt can work in small doses, but it gets annoying real quick.
            The secondthing that makes us like these horrible folks is that, despite all their unlikable characteristics, each of them tends to be a pretty decent person at the core.  Often in each of their respective stories, we’ll see these characters do something or make a gesture that doesn’t really benefit them, but it gives us a glimpse of who they really are when they’re not trying to score points or keep up appearances.  There’s an old saying you might’ve heard that sums this up well–someone who’s nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.  In screenwriting this sort of thing is sometimes known as the “saving the cat” (thanks, Blake Snyder), and it makes us—the audience—like these characters a little more.
            When Homer gives up his dream job at Globex to make his family happy, it’s showing us that he really does try to be the best father and husband that he can.  When Barney flies cross-country to tell Lily she needs to wise up and get back together with Marshall, it lets us see what’s really important to him.  If you’ve read any of the books by Thomas Harris, it’s pretty clear that Hannibal Lecter, despite some of his more gruesome dietary preferences, is kind of a classy guy.  He’s polite.  He’s generous.  He appreciates fine art and fine music.  He has a very good relationship with his orderly, Barney, born out of professional courtesy for one another.  Just because he sometimes does awful things to people doesn’t mean he’s needlessly cruel.  In fact Lecter never kills randomly or without purpose, and there’s a fair list of people in the books he doesn’t kill who he easily could have.
            Even if you’ve only seen the films, you may remember that one of his defining traits very early on is that he despises rudeness.  Lecter makes for kind of an interesting twist on saving the cat.  When his hallmate, Miggs, is exceptionally “discourteous” to Agent Clarice Starling, Lecter kills him for it.  After the good doctor escapes, Starling’s confident he won’t come after her because “he would consider it rude.”  If he was just a cannibal, Lecter would be no different than Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It’s this underlying decency that elevates him above a schlock-paperback slasher.
            I see this get messed up a lot in books and scripts.  The writer presents an unlikable character or characters that I’m clearly supposed to like on some level, but I’m never actually given a reason to like them.   A lot of horror storiesfail because of this.  If I don’t like a character on some level…why would I care what happens to them?
            That bit a moment ago with Miggs brings me to my third and final point…wish fulfillment.  While these characters are doing unlikable things, they’re all doing things that—on one level or another—we all wish we could do.  It would be awesome to goof off at work and drink every night and never get punished for it.  We’d love to sleep around and have no emotional fallout from either our partners or ourselves.  And, much as we’d like to deny it, there are times we’d all really like to see obnoxious idiots dead for the things they’ve done to us and to the people we like.  Preferably dead in a really horrible way.  The condescending doctor.  That jackass supervisor at work.  The guy in the insane asylum who throws bodily fluids. 
            A lot of times I see people trying to do the unlikable-but-likeable thing, and the real problem is that they’ve made a character who… well, just isn’t likeable.  There’s almost no way to put a positive spin on someone who stomps puppies to death or molests schoolchildren.  Personally, I find it really hard to get behind a bigot.  There are times that even saving a whole cat shelter can’t make up for a character’s unlikable traits because too many lines have been crossed.
            Yeah, I know the cannibalism thing is a little beyond what any of us want to do, but here’s an interesting point—you barely ever see Lecter’s eating habits in the books.  We hear about them, but in the first three books there’s only one incident where we actually see Lecter eat part of a human being (and it’s at the end of the third book in the series).  So it’s a character trait that’s inexcusable, but it’s also carefully kept at arm’s length.
            And that’s some of the reasons why so many of us can’t help but like the bad boys and girls.     
            Next time, I’d like to talk about a trio of failed television shows and why they failed.  There’s a good storytelling lesson in it for all of us.  Honest.
            Until then, go write.