Specs & The City: Empathetic Heroes and ‘Cinderella Man’

What makes people care about the heroes of your stories? Whether they’re the knight-in-shining-armor variety, or more of the dark and brooding anti-hero, you still have to give a reader or an audience a reason to like your Protagonist. Normally, a good script will take a moment extremely early on to show the audience that, “Hey, this guy/gal is all right.” This puts us firmly on their side and, just as importantly, it helps the audience cheer your hero on as they struggle through the shit storm you’ve created for them in Act II.  As a writer, it’s of paramount importance to make sure your audience cares whether your hero succeeds or fails at their quest. The simplest and often most effective way of doing this is to illustrate for the audience – through the hero’s actions – why he or she is worth rooting for.

Now, this isn’t a new strategy by any means. In fact, it’s been immortalized in Blake Snyder’s book, Save The Cat.  So why bother revisiting it here? Simply put, a lot of writers miss the point of the technique; or even worse, they simply use it as an excuse for lazy writing. Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?

One thing to keep in mind (and I still can’t believe that I have to address this) is NOT to take the title of Snyder’s book literally. Believe it or not, there are a lot of beginning writers out there who attempt to generate good will for their Protagonist by literally having them (you guessed it) save a cat.

Don’t be that writer.

From there you get into the group of writers who understand the concept, but aren’t willing to work up a new way of executing it. If I had a dollar for every spec script I’ve read where the Protagonist hands a few bucks over to a homeless person, I could… I don’t know… do something for which having a lot of dollars would be really useful (I’ve never been very good at finishing those statements). Anyway, the point is that these writers know what they need to accomplish, but they do so in the quickest, most clichéd way possible.

Don’t be that writer either.

Instead, follow the example of Akiva Goldsman, the Academy Award winning writer of A Beautiful Mind and (because everyone needs to stay humble) the non-Academy Award winning script for Batman and Robin. Let’s take a look at…

Creating Empathetic Heroes and ‘Cinderella Man’

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Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman make an undeniably great team. In 2001, they reached the pinnacle of their Hollywood careers with A Beautiful Mind, bringing audiences the tale of a man from the brink of success by events beyond his control, then  returned to respectability through sheer willpower and the support of his frustrated, yet ever loving wife. In fact, Howard and Goldsman had such an amazing experience working together that in 2005, they substituted the Great Depression and boxing for schizophrenia and math, and brought audiences the same story with Cinderella Man. Regardless, one of the things it gets (very) right is the way it establishes the character of James Braddock. Let’s take a look at an early scene, after the Depression has hit America in full force. Braddock and his family are living in a shack, struggling to make ends meet .

bologna2It’s dinnertime. Braddock’s daughter, having finished her own meal, looks around forlornly and complains of being hungry. Without a moment’s hesitation, Braddock complains loudly about how full he is, and asks her if she would help him by finishing his meal. We know immediately that he is a man who loves his family, and will do anything – make any sacrifice himself – in order to provide for them. It’s a powerful and original moment, and it sets up the audience (even those that might not like boxing as a sport and/or those that might expect Braddock to be a meat-headed lummox due to his profession, to care about this man and the struggle he’s about to embark on.

Take a look at your own scripts. Do they have a moment that lets the audience grow closer to your heroes? Establishing that emotional empathy for your Protagonist can go a long way towards helping your script stand out from the pile in those critical first few pages.

So move out of that shanty town, lace up those gloves, and keep writing!

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6 thoughts on “Specs & The City: Empathetic Heroes and ‘Cinderella Man’

  1. Brad JohnsonBrad Johnson Post author

    Thanks, Michelle. That was exactly the inspiration for this column. The give writers concrete examples from films they (should) know that help illustrate advice, instead of just giving a bullet pointed list.

    So glad to hear you find it helpful1! Keep reading!

  2. Michelle

    I appreciate how you break down your point and gives us specific examples. All too often I hear these things, “you’ve got to make your character sympathetic!!!”, but they’re hardly ever followed by a specific example of execution, and how and why that instance of execution works so well. Thanks for the articles, Brad. I always find them exceedingly useful!

  3. Brad JohnsonBrad Johnson Post author

    Larry – I’m not one for strict page count rules, but I definitely agree that the earlier the better when it comes to these kinds of moments. Get the audience or your readers on the side of your MC as soon as you can!

  4. Larry N Stouffer

    Good point, Brad. It could be something accidental. A subtle act of kindness or consideration to another human being. Subliminal. The message will be received by the Reader’s subconscious that lets him/her understand the a**hole Protagonist might have some redeeming qualities. Maybe I should read further to see what he’s all about… Bingo! I’d recommend this happen no later than page five. Give them enough time to dislike your Protagonist so when he does have the “Save the Cat” moment it’ll have maximum impact. The Reader may not yet love your character but it could make them curious enough to keep reading.

  5. Patrick Mahon

    How about saving a dog? That could work, right? Everyone in Los Angeles LOVES dogs!!!

    But seriously, good article and thank you for the advice, Brad. That table scene is a great example to reference.

    I must spend more time coming up with an original “rootability” moment.

    Actually it could be a dog AND a cat? Never seen that. Oh, wait, wait, I’ve got it…

    My MC’s gonna save a WHOLE ZOO!

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