There’s a screenwriting book called “Save The Cat.” It’s called that because the author, a screenwriter, talks about how every script should have a “save the cat” moment, where the audience learns that their protagonist is a good guy or gal.
Now that’s not bad advice, but it is a bit reductionistic. In truth, there is more than one way to skin that “cat.”
The cat in question is audience buy-in. In advertising I think you’d look at it as engagement. In whatever form, it boils down to an essential question, “Why do I care?”
Why do I care what happens next? Why do I care about this protagonist? Certainly, a save the cat moment will take care of that. See them doing something that tells us, yes, this is a person I like/respect/admire. That’s a person I’m likely to care about.
But that ain’t the only way. The second way to attack engagement is via IDENTIFICATION. I don’t have to like the protagonist of the story if I identify with them. They’re kind of like me in many ways. I identify with their humanity and their struggles, warts and all.
My wife and I used to watch The Americans, and my wife would on occasion grab my arm when the spies were on the verge of being discovered. I had to turn to her and remind her that she was emotionally distraught because murderous KGB agents were in danger of being discovered by the FBI, and in fact she was rooting for the murder of those same FBI agents.
Now, did The Americans employ save the cat moments? Sure, probably. But that wasn’t really it. To the show’s credit they weren’t afraid to show our protags as being deeply flawed and problematic people. So why did they get my wife’s buy-in (and mine)? It was that they were parents. It was that we identified with their innate humanity and the challenges they faced.
I rooted for years for a mass-murdering meth chemist based on a similar notion. Good story can have a Stockholm Syndrome effect on audiences. Vince Gilligan and his staff exploited that. He made us identify with Walt early on, and no matter how bad Walt got, and he got SO very bad, we, for the most part, stuck with him, through thick and thin. And we hated his wife for her COMPLETELY REASONABLE disloyalty.
But there’s more in Breaking Bad as well. It’s the third way to create engagement: FASCINATION. If your protagonist is fascinating, we will follow them to the ends of the earth, and care about them even when we shouldn’t. It’s the stuff of cult leaders, but it also works in storytelling. Tony Montana is a pyschopath from frame one, but we can’t take our eyes off him.
So how are you creating engagement for your main character? Are they helping little old ladies across the street? Or are you getting more creative?
Any engagement can work. What form will work best for the story you want to tell?