In my first post about the need for more characters in nonprofits stories, I recommended that people, not organizations, be the protagonists, that they struggle some in their journey, and that we hear them speak (through dialogue/quotes).
This post covers three other important ways to improve your characters and your stories. Please let me know if you have had success with others!
#4. Don’t forget the quirky stuff. Little details about a character’s appearance, background, setting, speech and unexpected actions all make that person more realistic and interesting. This also helps make the story itself more memorable, since readers often latch on to “sticky,” unusual details.
Example: When Civic Ventures (a think tank on boomers and social purpose work) awards their Purpose Prize to Americans 60+ for extraordinary work in encore careers, they don’t just tout the winners’ accomplishments. They paint a picture of the people and motivations, like the environmental activist whose life changed when, as a housekeeper, she noticed an article at a client’s house about pollution and asthma rates. Or the Miami telecomm executive who after seeing “Last of the Mohicans” decided he wanted to retire in N.C. (where the movie was filmed). There he built an online ordering system that linked local farmers in the poor community with chefs in bigger cities nearby.
#5. Create some type of antagonist. “Villains” may be a strong word – and concept – for many to consider using in their own work, but something tangible must stand in the way of success. Otherwise it’s a boring story – or not one at all.
Example: In 2003, MoveOn.org and others launched a campaign to stop the Federal Communications Commission from increasing concentrations of media ownership. Instead of talking about wonky policies and abstract decision-making audiences, the campaign ran ads that made media tycoon Rupert Murdoch the face – and villain – of the fight to prevent more media monopolies.
There are also times when work on broader social issues (e.g., behavior change campaigns) makes it difficult to pinpoint an actual bad guy. But it’s still important to personify obstacles so that people relate to them – as something worth overcoming.
Example: Epuron, a company developing and financing wind energy projects in Germany and France, developed this creative spot that makes wind a real person. The “antagonist” becomes the isolation and rejection he experiences, until he finds a good use for his talents.
#6. “We can’t use real people because of privacy issues.” That can be true for many nonprofits, especially those working with children, victims, etc. But I find that these very people are often willing to have their stories told – we just have to ask. If a nonprofit explains how their story will be used and how it will benefit others, many beneficiaries of a particular service or organization approve the use of their story (even for their children).
You can also change their name for privacy, or create a composite character/story based on common and real examples. If you use this strategy, however, you should clarify that for the reader, for credibility sake.
Example: The San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center was reluctant to tell the stories of families they serve, considering the extremely private, sensitive nature of those circumstances. After discussions with Fenton about the power of stories, the executive director used a powerful – real – story in a speech that simply changed the names of the people involved. The reaction to that speech convinced the organization to commit to telling more real stories whenever possible.
What have been your experiences with the previous six tips – or other aspects of or challenges with story characters? I look forward to hearing from you.