In lamenting some of the terribleness of modern screenwriting, Blake Snyder points out how many films lack a simple “Save the cat!” scene which he defines as such:
It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.
Before continuing, there’s a few caveats to stave off some knee-jerk criticisms of this description (it’s overly simple). It doesn’t need to be the “hero,” just whoever the story wants us to invest in. It doesn’t have to be something cliche and saccharine like literally saving a cat. And, we don’t actually need to “like” the character; don’t need to identity with or relate to them. What we need to do is care about what he does and what happens to him.
All that said, one part of the save the cat description that is a hard and fast rule is that the character must do something. The italics are Snyder’s original, and it’s just an immutable law of story telling that active characters are more engaging than passive ones. When something horrible happens to a character we’re already invested in, we care. We don’t care when a character is introduced as a victim, having something horrible happening to them.
In the series Stranger Things, this is the “he could have cast protection, but instead he cast fireball” moment when Mike, Lucas, and Dustin decide to defy their curfews, and put themselves in danger (either with their parents, or something worse) in order to go looking for their missing friend.
Doesn’t have to be something heroic though. It could simply be a character doing something clever. In Arrival, it’s the “desire for more cows” moment. It’s the opening monologue of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Or it could be something horrible. It’s killing the dog in House of Cards (boy do we already hate you, Frank Underwood, but we’re also already invested in your story).
Everywhere They Hurt Little Cats
So where does this leave us with A Game of Thrones?
Ned certainly doesn’t save any cats… though they do save some direwolf pups. But actually, Ned’s save the cat scene is executing Gared. I hate the “subverting expectations” crutch as much as the next guy (unless the next guy is a popcorn-stuffer who loves subverted expectations), but the save the cat moment for Ned is him killing a deserter who the audience knows had damn good reason to run as far and as fast from the Wall as he could. It works though because we’re able to understand Ned’s point of view and are impressed with his “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword” attitude and the vulnerability he shows when telling Bran that the only time a man can be brave is when he’s scared. Maybe we think Gared deserved a chance to return to Castle Black (maybe not), but either way Ned has done a thing that expresses his character and makes us care about what happens to him.
But What About All The Other Cats That Need Saving?
What complicates the hell out of this mechanic is that ASOIAF has so many damn characters in the driver’s seat. We’re expected to get invested in a lot of people in this series — that’s a lot of cats that need saving. I obviously can’t get into all of them, but I’ve just picked out three more that I think are particularly interesting.
Tyrion — If you’re thinking it’s the “bastards, cripples, and broken things” moment when Tyrion returns to Winterfell after visiting the Wall, you’re too late. If you think it’s Tyrion being the first to tell Jon the truth about the Night’s Watch on their way to the Wall, you’re again too late. I believe Tyrion’s first save the cat moment is when he bitch slaps Prince Joffrey. We’ve already been introduced to Tyrion in Jon’s first chapter, and he’s probably gotten our interest with the “all dwarves are bastards in the eyes of their fathers” quip. But, it’s when Tyrion, the stunted man with feeble twisted legs, slaps the crown prince right in front of The Hound that he really gets his moment of showing his character — like his brother the Kingslayer, the Imp strives to be someone better than what the world believes him to be.
Sansa — I think this one is rather complicated. If I said I cared what happened to Sansa in AGOT, it’s only to the extent that I really care about what happens to Joffrey. Truth be told, Sansa is something of an antagonist in the first book. When we start to get more invested in her is in A Clash of Kings. Early on, we get the pathetic excuse of a tournament for Joffrey’s name day celebration where Sansa does an almost literal saving a cat by saving Ser Dontos. This is the moment where we see the Sansa we’ll come to appreciate, someone who is not only less of a brat (because of the trauma she suffered in AGOT) but also becoming a savvy manipulator. This isn’t the the Sansa who got upset that Ned bought her a doll or who betrayed her sister to save her relationship with Joffrey, but the Sansa who says she “prays for an end to the fighting” without saying how she prays it ends. That’s the Sansa we get invested in.
Danaerys — This is probably the trickiest of the characters. If she had been successfully assassinated by the wine merchant, I think my reaction would have been “oh shit… what does this mean for Ned?” I had a hard time getting invested in her character, and I believe this is because for much of her story things are happening to her. It’s true that along the way in AGOT she gains more and more autonomy. Perhaps her save the cat moment is when she orders the Dothraki to stop raping the Lahrazeen women. This is going to be highly subjective, of course. What makes one reader invested doesn’t necessarily click for another. A second potential moment for investment in her is of course Khal Drogo’s funeral, the burning of MMD, and the birth of her dragons — for me though she’s only semi-active there, having an idea of what she’s doing, but not fully aware. For me, it feels like she’s in a bit of a haze, and not yet come into her own.
The moment where Danaerys saved the cat for me was her decision to leave Vaes Tolorro. She has traveled long and hard through the Red Wastes and finally found a place of relative safety. The region has water, fruit trees, and arable land. She could remain there, perhaps her small khalasar would grow a little, and more importantly her dragons could mature in safety. With the lamb women, I don’t believe she really understood what she was doing in saving them. With the funeral pyre, she’s acting half out of grief. But, in leaving Vaes Tolorro, she is in a position of relative safety, and most importantly — she is able to exercise complete agency.
tl;dr: If an author wants someone to get invested in their characters, they need to do something to earn the audience’s investment. We’re not just drawn to people because someone tells us we’re supposed to be.