Blake Snyder’s seminal work Save The Cat! is considered the bible of Hollywood screenwriting and its backbone is the titular plot point. In the book, Snyder describes the “Save the cat” moment as a relatively small but very important instance in the definition of a hero character that must occur early on in the story, that establishes them as the morally good protagonist. Something like, for example, saving a cat trapped up a tree. The exact details of the moment will differ depending on the exact character and the story that they inhabit, but the point remains the same: we need something, early on, that shows us clearly which character in the story to root for.
In response, and as part of my villain checklist, I present the opposite moment that you need for your villain:
Kick The Dog – The opposite of the famous “Save The Cat” trope, the adversary should perform some relatively minor villainous action early on in the story.
The Kick The Dog moment has three critical aspects. Firstly, it must occur early in the story, so it accomplishes its main purpose of defining the villain at the best time. Indeed, the same scene where we first see the villain is the best time to enact the Kick The Dog event, whatever it may be. Leave it too late, and it becomes superfluous.
Secondly, it has to be a small thing, at least relative to the story being told. The important word there is “relative”, and that goes for both Save The Cat and Kick The Dog. In a story where a common criminal is the bad guy the Kick The Dog moment might be something small-scale, like pickpocketing someone or running a con-job on a gullible older person. In a story about a megalomaniac trying to take over the world, the moment might be shooting an underling dead for no good reason. In a story about inter-galactic warfare, the moment might be blowing up a planet.
Lastly, it has to tell us something very important about the antagonist character: to put it simply, it should indicate what kind of level of villain we are dealing with. In the case of the common criminal running a con-job, it might showcase amoral ruthlessness as well, as a degree of charm. In the case of the megalomaniac, we might see reckless ambition combined with callous brutality. And with the planet destroyer, we might certainly see a God complex merged with technological reliance. Whatever the act, it has to give an insight into the antagonist, though, at the same time, it doesn’t have to tell us absolutely everything about them. It’s just a taste, a little spice in addition to the other parts of the introduction.
Let’s take a look at some good and bad examples of Kick The Dog in action.
You can pretty much take it as a given that I’m going to come back to Vader time and time again. His Kick The Dog moment is fairly clear. After accomplishing one of the most noteworthy entrances in film history, we next see him undertaking some “advanced interrogation” against a rebel soldier, holding the unfortunate guy up by the throat while he demands to know what the Tantive IV has done with the Death Star plans, a scene that ends with Vader, perhaps unintentionally, killing the soldier, throwing his corpse against a wall and flying into a rage. The scene hits all three of the necessaries for Kick The Dog: it’s early (Vader’s second scene), it’s a small thing relative to the larger story (what with the planet destruction later, and the Death Star generally) and it showcases Vader as both physically strong, without sentiment and liable to get angry very fast. Vader’s dialogue also leaves us with the impression that he’s intelligent. He see’s straight through the lie that the Tantive IV is just “a consular ship” and nothing more, and his demand to know “where is the Ambassador?” is both a refutation of the rebel’s story and a realization that whoever is the ambassador is likely to be the one with the plans, as noted by his next line: “Bring me the passengers, I want them alive!”
Let’s look at some of Star Wars’ more stuttering efforts to capture the same feeling. I’ve gone after the non-entity that is Darth Maul a few times already, but boy he is gift that keeps on giving. Maul doesn’t really have a Kick The Dog moment at all: his first scene is his hologram introduction, then he gets to tell his master that “At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi”, and then he’s on Tatooine sending out probe droids and by then we’re halfway through the film and the chance to have an actual Kick The Dog moment is lost. When is the first-time Maul actually does something unabashedly villainous? I guess when he engages in his first lightsaber duel with Qui-Gon Jinn as the heroic characters leave Tatooine. For the record, a laser sword duel between one of the main characters and the films primary antagonists does not constitute a “relatively small” action. And it really tells us nothing about Maul, nothing important anyway.
If we’re talking Compare and Contrast, we can go back to the dichotomy between a good Bond villain and a bad one. Both Silva in Skyfall and Dominic Green in Quantum Of Solace are shown being responsible for the death of someone in their early scenes, but the difference between the two is enormous. Silva toys with Bond’s relationship with Severine and his general shaky marksmanship by forcing him to play a twisted shooting game, the target being a glass of whiskey balanced on her head. Bond misses and Silva, all so casually, just shoots her without looking, moving on before the smoke has even cleared. He comes off as twisted, dangerous and altogether threatening, especially compared to Bond.
Greene, on the other hand, just shows Camille a geologist he’s had killed under suspicion of betraying him. We don’t see the geologist die, we don’t know if Greene was directly involved, it’s just something that happened off-screen that is meant to be scary and impressive. But it just isn’t. The moment in Skyfall has a bang to it that captures the imagination. The moment in Quantum Of Solace is just a bland addition to an already slapped together scene.
For another compare and contrast, let’s look at the MCU’s Guardians Of The Galaxy and DC’s attempt to do the same kind of thing in Suicide Squad. These are both films that I have criticized for their antagonists, but Guardians Of The Galaxy at least gets Kick The Dog right. Lee Pace’s Ronan, otherwise a dour unimaginative aping of Darth Vader without any understanding of what made that character great, is introduced to us as the leader of a sort of militant faction of a war that has just ended, and proceeds to summarily execute a representative of the other side, caving his head in with a massive hammer just off-screen. It’s a film where Ronan is later threatening the entire galaxy through the use of an Infinity Stone, so his Kick The Dog being the ruthless murder of an enemy underling is fine. And it shows us that he is both physically capable and a political threat to the standard order of the galaxy (I would be remiss if I didn’t also point at the MCU’s The Incredible Hulk, where Tim Roth’s Blonsky, in lieu of kicking a dog, shoots one instead).
Meanwhile, over in the land of multiple edits, we have the Enchantress, a villain so muddled in presentation that it makes the film somewhat hard to figure out. I’m not even sure if we can say that the Enchantress has a proper Kick The Dog moment: the first time we see her do something outrightly villainous of her own volition is a long way into the feature, when she helps bust her brother out of whatever ancient pot prison he’s in so he can go around causing chaos and…absorbing people? Like I said, that film wasn’t altogether straightforward in its presentation. In her early scenes the Enchantress is a frustrating enigma without a voice, having more of a weird look: it takes a very long time – too long – for us to learn anything substantial about her character through her actions, and by then the film has already floundered amid all of its other problems.
And maybe we can also give Suicide Squad’s Joker a brief mention in comparison to The Dark Knight’s version of the character. Jared Leto’s Clown Prince Of Crime goes around killing and hurting people willy-nilly in his early scenes, mostly for garish effect; Heath Ledger’s take is a bit more calculated and reserved in the way that he offs his fellow bank-robbers, and comes off as far more intelligent – and interesting – as a consequence. To put it another way, Leto’s Joker describes himself during his Kick The Dog as a “black hole of rage and confusion” while Ledger’s Joker goes with, as previously noted, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you…stranger”. Who sounds more like an antagonist you want to get to know?
For a more negative example of the idea, take a look at Hoskins from the dreadful Jurassic World (the central human antagonist, as opposed to the giant reptiles). He’s a real nothing character generally, and his Kick The Dog would appear to be nothing more than looking on, gleefully but passively, while an attendant gets into trouble in the velociraptor pen. Hoskins is the guy who was earlier talking about using velociraptors as military assets – God, that movie was awful – and this is apparently supposed to be the moment when the audience understands his desire is not just a demented inspiration, but tied into his own disregard for the well-being of others. But it’s simply too non-kinetic for a Kick The Dog moment, and doesn’t help to play Hoskins as effective or a threat, in any way.
The Kick The Dog moment can also just be a general but of a behaviour that covers the characters introductory phase. For example, take Beauty And The Beast, both the animated and more recent live-action version, and the character of Gaston. In both, Gaston’s early scenes are marked by boorishness and bullying, both towards Belle and towards his right-hand man La Foux: Gaston’s Kick The Dog is his general obliviousness to other people’s desires and independence in the course of the “Belle” song, whether it is the woman who wants nothing to do with him or the attendant whose man-crush he keeps exploiting.
That does it for the introduction of the villain then. We’ve gone over the moment we first see them, their distinctness, their early definition and now a more practical application of their villainy. If done right, we should now be set up with a clear character to root against, identifiable and effective. Now is the time to get more into the villain’s actual character: what drives them, what they stand to lose, what actions they are willing to take and what they think of themselves. Next time, we’re going to get into how a villains motivation should be portrayed.