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Save The Cat
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Whether you are writing a novel or a movie script, your protagonist and antagonist must have depth. How many movies have you seen where the characters are bland stereotypes? If you're like me, then it's probably more than I'd like to admit. This terrible trend is even more noticeable in horror genres (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hostel, Cabin in the Woods, Cabin Fever, The Possession, Paranormal Activity, and many, many more). Characters, whether they are heroes, anti-heroes or even veritable villains must connect with the audience in some way or another. They need to be real. They don't need to be stereotypes.
Movies, in a way, manipulate the minds of audiences. People watch movies to feel something. Sometimes it's to laugh, sometimes it's to cry, and sometimes it's to feel inspired, or even feel terrified. Movies make people feel. What makes audiences 'feel' is their ability to identify with the characters on the screen. It's the screenwriter's (or novelist's) job to create characters that are realistic and likeable enough that audiences can identify with as soon as possible. In order for this to happen, you-the writer-must give the character a trait that makes them likeable. This goes for your villainous characters as well.
In your novel or movie, your protagonist is going to go through hell. It's your job as the writer to make it so. But somewhere along their map of challenges, failures and successes, it's a great idea to add a scene where your character does a random act of kindness for someone, perhaps even a stranger. This scene is what professional writers call the "save the cat" scene. Or, if you want them to be downright terrible, a "kick the cat" scene could be used instead. This analogy comes from the hypothetical scenario of a character who, in the chaos of his/her own journey, stops to rescue a cat from a tree. Although it's better for the scene to be relevant to the plot, it doesn't always have to be. Whichever way you choose to use this tactic, it will help add to your character's depth and dimension and therefore, will have an emotional impact on your audience.
Consider Will Smith's character in the film I, Robot. His character is rough, aggressive. If those were his entire characteristics, he would be a pretty flat and one-dimensional protagonist. So writers add a 'save the cat' sequence-a scene that makes the audiences feel more emotional toward him-a scene that demonstrates his sensitive side. Do you know what they are? There are several. One is how he gives the neighborhood punk mercy. The punk kid has committed crimes and is always looking for trouble but Will Smith continues to encourage him to stay in school and off the streets. The other way the writers have demonstrated his sensitive side is how he cares for his elderly nana.
Adding to the complexity of his character is his past. He experienced something that has troubled him for many years. Characters need to be troubled, haunted, lost, lonely or flawed in some other way. This allows for some emotional backstory and touching dialogue for later.
These rules apply for villains too. The most effective, powerful villains are ones that capture the empathy of audiences. They are driven by more than just for the sake of being bad. They have emotional motivations. They are haunted, troubled, lost, lonely or flawed as well. They have as much drive and backstory as the hero. Conflict is key in every scene and there's no better way to make the audience feel this than by squaring off both a hero and a villain that audiences love.
For a successful villain, writers need to make their story every bit of sensitive and detailed as the hero. There is always another side to the story, and it's good to view the world through a different perspective. Consider The Wizard of Oz. For decades the Wicked Witch of the West was a mean, spiteful villain hellbent on destroying Dorothy for her ruby red slippers. But then Wicked was released as a re-telling of The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch's perspective and suddenly it's a New York Times Bestseller and a Broadway hit! Audiences get to see and understand that Elphaba (The Wicked Witch) wasn't so bad after all. Sure, like every great character she handled some situations in ways that weren't the best, but she wasn't a bad person and hardly considered a villain.
It is a gray line between a hero and a villain. A great writer working on a great story can make a great villain seem like a hero. Perspective is subjective. The villain should be a hero, and the hero should still be a hero. It's when their paths cross that lines should be drawn. In the final confrontation between the villain and the hero, audiences should feel conflicted about who to cheer for. How many villains can you think of that may have a backstory? For every villain that exists, a backstory should exist as well.
The next time you open up your word processor, type-writer or screenwriting program, be sure you include a 'save the cat' scene for both your protagonist and your villain. Don't let audiences sit through another character-flat film like 2012, Resident Evil, The Blind Side, Transformers, or Watchmen. For excellent example of good character writing, consider the characters and dialogue in Michele Pfeiffer's Cheri, Michael Douglas's Romancing the Stone, and even Tina Fey's Mean Girls. Also read and watch movies at every opportunity. Pick up Syd Field's Screenplay, the Foundations of Screenwriting and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. And keep in mind, it's just as important to read and watch bad books and bad movies as much as it is the good ones.
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