Ah, anti-heroes. Those characters we love even though everything else tells us that maybe we shouldn’t. They’re morally questionable, lack typical heroic qualities, and tend to brood. A lot. And yet, we still can’t get enough of them.
But what makes anti-heroes crowd favorites? Or, more specifically, how can we make sure our readers come to love these characters when they lack the charms of our protagonists?
Well, it all involves a dog. Or maybe a cat, depending on how you’ve heard it phrased before.
Ok, no, not a real dog and/or cat. Well, probably not a real dog and/or cat, unless dogs and/or cats abound in your dog and/or cat writings.
I’m talking about a phrase called “petting the dog,” or I’ve heard it called “saving the cat” too. Writer’s choice. For me, though, since I’m a dog person, I use “petting the dog” in reference to this neat tip.
It’s a great trick for when you want to give your character a little bit of extra help in the likability category. That anti-hero you want the audience to relate to? That character you’ve just introduced and you need to make sure the audience resonates with them? Maybe you’re trying to flip your villain into an anti-hero? Petting the dog is how you’re going to succeed.
It’s an ingenious trick: you set your character in a scene where they show kindness to another. Particularly someone weaker or more expressive of their vulnerability. And you get extra points for cuteness (like a dog, for example!), but the real kicker is this: this moment of kindness does nothing to help them further their agenda.
That’s it. You take your character and make them expression genuine kindness toward another, vulnerable character/critter. It softens their edges, makes them more relatable, and then, DING!, you’ve made your reader see this character in a new light.
Let’s look at some examples:
In The Chronicles of Narnia movies we see Edmund belittle and bully his sister, Lucy, throughout the first movie. Then, in the second, we see Edmund come to his sister’s defense when she insists on seeing Aslan, even though her older siblings cannot. As a viewer, my estimations of Edmund skyrocketed at that point because he was willing to defend his younger sister, even though he didn’t really have a reason to.
In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey wakes up as Kylo Ren’s prisoner. When she snaps at him about being chased by a creature in a mask, Kylo graciously removes his helmet to continue the conversation. The conversation would have continued with or without the mask, and his removal of it hinted that he considered Rey’s unease.
In the Harry Potter series, Mr. Filch enjoys hanging disobedient students up by their thumbs in the dungeons. But he dotes on Mrs. Norris. Granted, the cat might be the spawn of Satan, but you can respect a man devoted to his feline friend.
Remember the book burning from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? When Indy goes to retrieve his father’s diary in Berlin and runs into Elsa? Her horrified expression and subsequent early leaving of the book burning is an excellent petting the dog moment because it gives complexity to her character.
These are just a few moments in which “petting the dog” or “saving the cat” forced me to reevaluate previous character conceptions. In the first two examples, these petting the dog moments are working toward changing the entire characterization of these two characters: we’re meant to root for Edmund and (to an extent) Kylo Ren. In the latter two, they go toward rounding these characters out and giving them a more dimensional presence in the stories. Either way, we can see some excellent character development in play here.
Know of some more petting the dog/saving the cat moments? Comment below!