In my writing workshop, I teach a class on creating dynamic characters. The first thing I teach about the the protagonist is that he/she has to “pet the puppy” in the first scene. Don’t giggle, it’s not obscene. It means that your hero has to do something to prove to the reader that he/she is a good person. Readers want to know that they are “rooting for the good guy,” and it will make them more likely to want to go on your hero’s journey–read the rest of the book.
The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy literally pets Toto and tries to save him from being taken away by Miss Gulch.
The Hunger Games– Katniss, a teenager, takes the role of supporting her starving family.
The Hobbit– Bilbo Baggins spends the whole first scene trying to convince Gandalf that it is a “Good Morning.”
I was watching the pilot episode of Damien the other day and had to laugh at its opening scene. Aside: Damien is a new television series based on the 1976 film, The Omen. Damien is a photojournalist in Syria and is in the middle of a massacre by military with weapons. The military descends on the “townsfolk” and starts shooting and beating them. An old woman trips and is about to get trampled when Damien stops taking pictures and helps the old woman to her feet so she can run to safety.
Okay, so this anti-hero–who is literally the Anti-Christ–has just pet the puppy. If Damien had been one of the bad guys and just shot the woman point blank and laughed over her dead body, then most viewers wouldn’t care about him. But because he’s basically a good guy…and doesn’t know he’s the Anti-Christ…and struggles with it…we’re like, “Okay, I’ll buy it. He can be my friend. I want to know more.”
So how does does a writer get their protagonist to pet the puppy? Well, we have to consider the social constructs in our society, the personal cues that we interpret as being a “good person.” Here are the most common devices:
- Caring for or being nice to the weak, young, elderly, or animals.
- Helping someone who needs help.
- Giving something away to someone who needs it (a form of #2).
- Teaching or enjoying the company of children.
- Doing something for the greater good of society (cleaning up a beach, ending a war, catching a killer)
Consider the first scene of A Steel Kiss, by Jeffery Deaver, one of my favorite authors and a 25-year best-selling author. The protagonist, Amelia Sachs, is an NYPD detective about to take down a suspect in Starbucks. She’s just about to catch her man when she hears screams. Someone is caught in a nearby escalator, already injured. Bleeding. Amelia abandons her suspect to try to save the dying man…PTP!
Really, you can find the Pet the Puppy moment in almost every well-written story. So the next time you open a book to the first chapter or start a television series, see if you can spot it.
No pun intended.