Why Your Hero Absolutely Must Pet the Dog

Some characters are born with “lovable” written all over their cute little faces. But some just pop out ugly—and mean—and generally rough around the edges. Most of my protagonists are people who have made major mistakes in their lives (we’re talking killing people, selling out to the dark side, and, in one case, putting sugar in the salt shakers). They’re scarred, they’re cranky, sometimes they’re just plain wrong. I can tell you right now that even I, their creator, wouldn’t want to run into some of them in a dark alley.

There’s a little trick authors can use to make even their darkest anti-heroes sympathetic.

It’s what TV writers call pet the dog or save the cat. All you have to do is insert a scene in which the character—who’s presumably embattled on every side—pauses a moment, perhaps at risk to himself, to help something or someone who as, James Scott Bell explains in Revision and Self-Editing, is “weaker and more vulnerable than he is.” Bell goes on:

A pet-the-dog beat, properly executed, creates great sympathy for the character, while at the same time may add to the suspense. It doesn’t have to be a literal dog, but any other character who is vulnerable.

For example, in John Robinson’s mystery Until the Last Dog Dies, gruff PI Joe Box adopts a scruffy alley cat and mourns when he believes the cat dies in a house fire. In the Coen brothers’ recent movie adaptation of True Grit, “notorious thumper” and general rough character Marshal Rooster Cogburn nonchalantly wallops two Indian boys who are mistreating a mule. And who could forget assassin Léon’s devotion to his Japanese peace lily in Luc Besson’s The Professional?

Your hero might also win audience sympathy through his devotion to a person, such as Katniss Everdeen’s sacrificial love for her younger sister Prim in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Or Dr. Richard Kimble’s risking his disguise to diagnose a car wreck victim in Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive. Or the people of Guernsey’s adoption of a war orphan in Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Your pet-the-dog scene must be organic to your character and your story.

Having your hero dive into the middle a firefight to save a lop-eared puppy won’t work unless the puppy’s survival drives the plot forward. In some stories, petting the dog becomes the story, as in L.M. Montgomery’s classic children’s story Anne of Green Gables, in which a crotchety woman adopts an orphan girl and is transformed by the experience. Or as in Frank Capra’s movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which features its cranky, unhappy hero looking out for other people over and over again.

If you find yourself with a dark character on your hands, stop worrying about whether or not audiences will like him and up the odds by giving him a dog to pet. After all, even bad guys love their mommas. A pet-the-dog beat won’t salvage an unlikable character if petting the dog is his only good deed, but audiences will be much more likely to connect to even the crankiest, grumpiest, most misunderstood anti-hero when the character reaches out and shows compassion to a brown-eyed puppy dog.

Tell me your opinion: What’s your hero’s pet-the-dog scene?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I don’t know, I’m less likely to sympathize with someone who has a dog. But then I hate dogs. 😉

    I would also say that just one incident of this kind of behavior isn’t going to do it for me. It has to be a pattern of behavior. A single incident strikes me, as a savvy reader, as contrived to get my sympathies. Like the politician kissing the baby. I’m not fooled. It has to be deeper than that.

  2. The notion of petting the dog must flow organically from the character. An otherwise unlikable character won’t be transformed with a little pat to the head of the neighbor’s chihuahua. In fact, a bad guy who shows a burst of unwanted kindness can be all the creepier for it. But utilizing an organic instance of compassion can serve to demonstrate the character’s softer side in a way readers can grab hold of.

  3. Great post! I’m a total sucker for any character doing something nice for others. I’ve heard this pet-the-dog thing called “save the cat”. I believe there’s a screenwriting book by that name.

  4. I was recently told by an agent that her love for one of my characters was cemented the moment he helped another character feed a bunch of very newborn, and therefore very ugly, kittens. 🙂 Nice post!

  5. @Tamara: Ah, yes, the cat in the tree routine? Never fails!

    @L. Scribe: Aw, newborn kittens are adorable. Not as adorable they get in a few weeks, but still adorable!

  6. Sarah might glean a bit of help from the book, SAVE THE CAT. In it, Blake Synder says essentially what you did : we must begin with a “save the cat” scene to cement reader identification and empathy to our MC. He relates one of the first scenes of SEA OF LOVE, where the cop, Al Pacino, spares a criminal caught in a sting operation because he is with his son. He flashes the criminal his badge on his belt, warning him of the sting and warning him that he will eventually be arrested with his dry, “Catch you later.”

    How could you not root for a guy like that? Roland

  7. Haven’t seen the movie, but I already like the character! Hard characters with soft spots – those are the characters that inevitably grab and refuse to let go.

  8. That must be why stories about knights errant, searching for princesses in distress are so popular. 😀

    I generally try to make my heroes sympathetic.. to some degree. Unless it ruins the point of the story.

  9. I’m still trying to figure out what my pet the dog, or save the cat (I like that one better :p) scene will be. I’ve had a few ideas, but none of them move the story forward.

  10. @Gideon: Not all heroes are meant to be sympathetic. Some are intended to be downright unlikable. But, for the most part, popular fiction demands a character readers can like.

    @Lorna: The trick is making this beat inherent. It has to be a domino that influences the dominoes to follow.

  11. Great post!

    My save the dog moment–my teenager male MC (who is a little on the horny side) looks away when a girl who doesn’t know he is there begins to undress. It is just a small moment–but one of my crit partners pointed it out as the reason she really started to become attached to him. It is amazing how much one small detail influences a reader’s thoughts.

  12. I’m not sure if it has to move the story forward. Perhaps it can just tell us more about the character. I’m thinking of The Closer. Brenda is hard as nails yet found it difficult to allow the vet to put “Kitty” to sleep. In previous episodes, she actually fought against this softer side by never naming the cat–hence the name Kitty. Reminds me of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I believe the cat was just “Cat.”

    In my YA novel the main character shows compassion to her dog by rescuing him from a rooster (obviously takes place on a farm!).

  13. Chivalry – for all that it’s supposed to be dead – still appeals, particularly to the ladies.

  14. @Sheila: The fact that the cat in The Closer was a recurring character gave its influence upon the MC enough weight to work. Had the cat showed up and died in only one episode, it likely wouldn’t have worked as well.

  15. The protagonist in my next book saves a cat from drowning while the villain looks on. He doesn’t help her. She wonders why because she still thinks he’s a good guy. She pets the cat and the readers see the face of evil for the first time.

  16. Nice job making the beat do double duty to characterize both the protagonist and the antaognist!

  17. LOL. Save the cat!

    The neighbor’s a crotchety crank who would just as soon grab a kid by the scruff of the neck and throw him out as not. But he still “pets the dog” (or “saves the cat”).

    : )

  18. Crotchety neighbors are some of my favorite characters – especially when they turn out to be lovable.

  19. This is good. Overall, it’s about humanizing our characters. “Good people” do “bad things” at times. “Bad people” do “good things” sometimes. Since as writers we must choose how to represent such concepts in simplified terms, having your flawed character pet a dog, save a cat, nurture a plant, etc, provides that image to symbolize the “good” quality in him or her.

  20. Exactly. The most important part of petting the dog or saving the cat is that it actively demonstrates the character’s good side. It’s one thing to tell readers a character is a good guy, but readers won’t really believe it until you show them the character’s heart of gold in action.

  21. I love this when I read it in books or see it in movies. The trick for me is doing it myself…organically.

  22. “Organic” is very possibly the most difficult word in a writer’s vocabulary. It’s way easier said than done! But the more we know about our characters, the easier it is to figure out how they would organically pet the dog.

  23. I think every noir character I’ve read (or wrote) literally pet a dog somewhere during the story. They play a bigger role than a character building device, because they are often used for symbols of abandonment.

    My WIP character has a few, pet-a-dog moments. He had a hoarding mother, so he loves to give stuff. Sometimes he steals even, only to give. Makes him feel useful and helps him distanciate himself from what he thinks might be a genetic disease.

  24. Good stuff. The movie Million Dollar Baby used its literal pet the dog scene as excellent metaphor of abandonment.

  25. Didn’t realize that there was a name for these moments! 🙂

    I also didn’t realize mine already had this moment until I really thought about it. Without this moment, my adolescent male MC would probably come off surly and a typical rebellious teen. But, his PTD moment is with his 6-year-old sister, who’s quite sick. After she’s finished taking a bath, he carries her, wet towel and all, to her bedroom, and tucks her in bed. He asks her if she’s alright and if she needs anything else, then hugs her hard, sincerely. The reader then realizes that all of his reactions to his parents and the bullies at school is all harping back to this point – how to save his dying sister. All of my current beta-readers love him because of this sweet side.

    Very cool post! Thanks!

  26. Perfect! Little kids are often even more effective than animals, since not only are they super cute, but they’re also more intricately related to the plot and the character’s development.

  27. Great post. And how interesting it is when a villain is seen petting a dog. The reader thinks, “How bad can this dude be if he stops to pet a dog before knocking over that grocery store?” In fact, now that I think about it, the bad guy in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS has “Precious” — the love of his life. But that relationship only makes him scarier, rather than compassionate. Hmmm… something to think about as I write my next thriller. Keep up the good work!!

  28. Bad guys – especially the *really* bad ones – are easier to compartmentalize if we can’t relate to them. The moment they become relatable is the moment they become scary – because it’s also the moment they become real.

  29. Thoughtful and useful post. I love animals, both wildlife and pets, so I always put them in my books. Usually my characters are animal lovers from the get-go, but in my latest mystery, I had the detective start off ready to take the pets his ex-wife left behind to the pound, but then over the course of the book he comes to appreciate the intelligence and personalities of all animals. So I certainly hope that readers and pet lovers who get upset at my protagonist in the beginning keep reading!

  30. Animals are always one of my favorite details in any story. I grew up around horses, and I love dogs and cats, so they’re a no-brainer for most of my stories.

  31. omg, yes yes! I’ve heard about this pet the dog trick, and I didn’t even know that’s what it was called, but I SO use it. It’s like Shakespeare’s yin-yang trick. All bad guys, a spot of good. All good guys a spot of bad. Makes them more real. Good stuff, girl~ :o) <3

  32. Verisimilitude! None of us are pure white or pure black. That’s what makes the human race so interesting.

  33. This was so insightful! I really loved it, I shall have to add this aspect to my stories. I have a villain who has a habit of “petting dogs” and yes it certainly makes him more creepy.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    Jessica

  34. Oh, sorry this feels a little presumptuous but I am having a little music giveaway at my blog and I’d love to have you join. It’s a young film composer with some amazing music.
    http://safirewriter.blogspot.com/2011/08/200th-post-giveaway-and-interview.html
    Have a lovely day!
    Jessica

  35. Petting cats is a trope in itself when it comes to villains. The cat-stroking villain is a sure sign of evilness in the western world.

    Thanks for the info about the giveaway! I’ll check it out.

  36. I’ve heard this before. A ‘save the cat’ moment.

  37. You’re right. It’s alternately called a save-the-cat beat.

  38. My MC watches over her dad and sister and protects them, even from herself.

  39. Sounds like an interesting MC!

  40. If you are going to steal from Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat!” at least give him credit!

  41. This idea didn’t originate with Snyder. “Petting a dog” is a well-known screenwriting term.

  42. I’m totally with you on this. It makes a big impact to me as a reader to see that compassion in a protagonist.

    I’m curious though — why do you think some books gain popularity without it? The first one that comes to mind for me is A Clockwork Orange. Really awful main character that the reader feels no sympathy for until midway through the book (I think . . . it’s been a while). Yet a lot of people love this book. In fact, it was required reading for me in college.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The exception that breaks this rule is usually a story of the tragic variety. Negative character arc stories have long piqued humanity’s interest, but it’s usually more the fascination with the unlikable characters’ descent than any personal connection (such as would be created by a pet the dog moment) that keeps us reading.

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