A Story Begins with a Hero: Save the Cat! Creates a Character

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“So, no, I’m not here to change your process. I’m here to enhance your process.”

That’s a quote from the introduction to Save the Cat! Writes A Novel. The book’s author, Jessica Brody, goes on to state that her book isn’t so much a collection of guidelines about plotting or pantsing, but rather a consideration of story structure. That’s the great appeal of Save the Cat! Writes A Novel.

Story structure is universal; an author’s process is specific to an author.

But then I got to chapter one, and right away, from the moment Brody suggests using hero instead of, say, main character to label a book’s protagonist, I sensed a hero’s journey redux coming my way. Then again, I should have known after reading the introduction. After all, the hero’s journey is THE structure writers have been crowing about since the second half of the last decade.

I, however, have always felt uneasy about the hero’s journey. It is a veritable glass slipper, and heels have been sliced off to make a foot fit.

So, quiz time. What is the hero’s journey?

[1] A basic pattern that informs all storytelling, one based on a universal psychology

[2] A framework to analyze stories with

[3] Both [1] and [2]

[4] Some nonsense bullshit

Depending on who you are, you’ll answer either [1], [2], [3], or [4]. While it’s too early to tell, Save the Cat! Writes A Novel will probably fall firmly into [3]. Any book espousing guidelines for story structure essentializes storytelling by default, which means Save the Cat! Writes A Novel will most likely present its reader with not only a basic pattern that informs all storytelling but also a framework by which you can analyze your current work in progress. Or any book, for that matter.

Brody writes:

“Because whether you’ve ‘pantsed’ your way through a first draft, and now you have to figure out what to do with it to make it work, or you’re starting out with a shiny new idea and you want to plot in advance, it’s all the same thing in the end. We all have to do some plotting work somewhere, somehow.”

But what if you’re just starting on your novel writing journey? Where does Save the Cat! Writes A Novel suggest you begin?

A Story begins with a hero

That’s right. Instead of beginning with, say, a marketing strategy or a premise, you dive right into character building. According to Brody, crafting an “interesting, memorable, and relatable” hero requires:

A problem: or a flaw that needs fixing

A want: or a goal that the hero is pursuing

A need: or a life lesson to be learned

This is Brody’s three ingredient recipe for what she calls a flawed hero. As you can see, the word “flaw” is doing a lot of work here: a flaw can be a character trait, but it could also just be something like being poor. In Save the Cat! Writes A Novel, the dullest hero would be God as anything short of omnipotence, by Brody’s open definition, is a flawed condition. On the plus side, this means coming up with a “interesting, memorable, and relatable” hero should be easy peasy. Unless your chosen protagonist is God, that is.

Thinking about these three aspects of your character’s life will in turn inform two aspects of your story:

The A Story: which is the external story

The B Story: the internal story that usually end’s in a character’s transformation

Novel writing, then, is the matching of the A story to the B story, by arranging a “marriage” between story and character. While this suggests a kind of equality between the two, for Brody, the B story is by far the more important one: “The true story of a novel lies in the hero’s need, which can also be called the internal goal, the life lesson, or the spiritual lesson.”

Such alchemical transformation is, of course, fundamental to the hero’s quest. The hero experiences the events of his story and returns to his or her status quo irrevocably altered. Brody suggests that fictions have several such “universal” and transformative rasas: (1) forgiveness, (2) love, (3) acceptance, (4) faith, (5) fear, (6) trust, (7) survival, (8) selflessness, (9) responsibility, and (10) redemption. Brody says all books fall into these 10 categories. Of course, if you ask Victoria Lynn Schmidt, she might offer 54 different story themes, not including a blank one.

So, then, what about me and my current works in progress?

Let’s just say, I felt a knee-jerk resistance while reading the first chapter of Save the Cat! Writes A Novel. For starters, the hero’s journey has never excited my imagination. The only book I’ve ever read that replicated the hero’s journey in an almost paint by numbers manner is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, and while that book is wonderfully imaginative- as is everything Gaiman writes, I didn’t find the story particularly gripping. (Of course, I’m not the right age demographic, but still).

The nice thing, however, is that since I’m using Save the Cat! Writes A Novel in conjunction with the snowflake method, I already had the external parts of the story somewhat figured out. My heroes and heroines had a story goal: a want or a problem. What they lacked was a defined need- a life lesson to be learned. I’ve played around with Brody’s ten options and tried to shoe horn my character into one or another of them. Each time, it feels like an assault.

My characters resist.

I resist.

Let’s just say that this week’s adventures in outlining has ended in failure.

Thank you for reading. This is post three in a series on becoming a plotter. Come back to see if this dyed in the wool x-treme pantser can change their spots. 

3 thoughts on “A Story Begins with a Hero: Save the Cat! Creates a Character

  1. Great discussion of this storytelling method! I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who’s skeptical of the hero’s journey theory. I had to write a piece on it recently for someone who really likes it, and it was interesting to try and balance politeness with “I genuinely think that this is just one tool in a vast toolbox to look at stories with, and it is neither the most powerful nor the most interesting tool, and definitely not the one you should reach for first.”

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    1. Whole-heartedly agree. Unsurprisingly, the writing advice in Chapter 2 of the Save the Cat book is definitely a re-worded hero’s journey. For the last two weeks, I’ve been trying it out while I outline, and I find myself in writer’s block. I’ve decided I’ll look at this info again after I’ve assembled a loose outline first. I’m sure I’ll be able to retroactively pick out who the “mentor” in my story is. (Honestly, I think I like the snowflake method better; it’s looser and feels more liberating.) Thanks for the comment!

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      1. When I’ve had to use the hero’s journey before, usually in literary analysis, I’ve been forced to use it as a flexible tool, and acknowledge that it just isn’t universal. Human stories can be messy and wildly varied, I’m not sure why anyone thinks there’s such a thing as universal structure, especially one that’s so specific! Maybe your story doesn’t have (or need) a “mentor.” There’s plenty of good story to be had when a character is forced to figure things out for themselves.

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