A protagonist outside the cinema (part 2 of 2): ten tips

In a previous article I discussed the benefits of using characters in content-driven communication. Characters make it easier for your audience to picture your message and put the information in a meaningful perspective. They help the reader get emotionally involved and motivated by your purpose (the ‘why’). I also gave some examples of main characters in different media and sectors.

Ready to explore how a main character can improve your story? In this follow-up article I give you ten practical tips.

Tip 1: start with the message

If you want to communicate about a complex topic, start by determining what message you want to deliver. In the first article, I discussed a commercial for Google India as an example. That commercial’s message is something like: Google’s technologies improve people’s lives by making it possible to find almost anything. Once you know that this is what you want to tell your audience, you can determine what would be the most suitable character to deliver this message.

Even if you don’t intend to use characters, it can still be helpful to think about who would be a suitable character if you did. That question can trigger other ideas that can make your story more human and more concrete.

Tip 2: choose a main character who resembles your audience

If you are not sure how to decide on a protagonist, pick one who resembles the people in your audience. This will often be a quite average and ordinary character, not someone particularly successful or special. The audience will generally think of themselves as ‘normal’ too.

Of course, it is also important to choose a character who can deliver the information. For instance, for scientific communication about an innovative and complex brain scanning method that will make it easier for doctors to do their job, a doctor is probably a better main character than a patient, albeit a less ordinary one.

Tip 3: don’t make yourself the protagonist

Generally, it is advisable to choose someone else, rather than yourself, as the main character of your story; perhaps a customer, a citizen or an employee. This is because when you-as-the-main-character are successful, or perform a good deed, it is hard to talk about this in a likable way. This is the reason why Joshua Foer, who is his own main character in the TED-talk (which I mentioned in the previous article), emphasises how surprised he was when he won a memory contest.

Introducing yourself in your own story can be effective: it allows you to describe your research or policy work in a concrete way. But this works best if your role is that of the ‘helper’ rather than the main character. In storytelling lingo, the helper shows the main character (the ‘hero’) the way, or acts as his or her mentor. Think of meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa in The Lion King, who teach Simba, the main character, everything he needs to know.

Tip 4: balance information and narrative

Sometimes characters deliver the main part of the message, as is the case in the Google India commercial (see the example in the previous article). In other cases, they play minor roles in the story. How you balance informative and narrative elements depends on the medium and the purpose of your story. In content-driven stories, the combination of the human aspect on the one hand with statistics and numbers on the other is often a very compelling one. You show the impact on one individual, and you also show that this impact is felt by many more people.

Using a main character in your communication doesn’t mean that it should look different from what you’re used to. A minor alteration can have a large effect. Suppose for instance that you want to explain the pedagogic policy of a child care centre. It may seem sensible to just write this down in a matter-of-fact way. But an interesting alternative would be to introduce a kindergarten teacher as a main character who tells your audience about the policy and how she implements it. Or to insert text boxes with quotes from a parent or employee.

Yusuf, one of two main characters from Google Search: Reunion

Tip 5: make your character lifelike

Will your protagonist play an important role in your story? Then make sure it is a realistic character: a person made of flesh and blood. This means that you sometimes have to include details that seem trivial from the perspective of the main message. You can also bring your characters to life by giving them a name. In the Google India commercial we meet Baldev in India and Yusuf in Pakistan. In 1947, they went to the park to fly kites every day and stole sweets together. When India and Pakistan split, Yusuf and Baldev were separated. Baldev has now grown old, and still misses Yusuf. Such an enlivened story works better than ‘Two friends found each other thanks to Google’s search engines’.

Making your characters lifelike means that you can’t exclusively emphasize their positive character traits. They have to also make mistakes, struggle with problems and have weaknesses, just like everybody else. This may feel awkward; we’d rather discuss our fantastic and innovative organisation and the high-quality products it sells. But if you want to engage your audience, this overly positive communication style is not very effective.

Tip 6: make explicit that it is just one example

A content-driven story is never about just one single person. Joined-up care is relevant to Sam, but also to Sara, Finn, Ahmed and Monica. Sam has emphysema, Type 2 diabetes and arthritis, but people with heart failure and dementia also benefit from integrated care. By using Sam as your main character, you don’t mention any other possible cases.

This is usually easy to fix by explicitly presenting your main character as an example. You can do this in the main storyline (‘Sam’s example can illustrate this’) or by describing the other possible cases in a text box (‘other diseases that these patients often suffer from are x, y and z’). Then audiences will understand that the story concerns more people than just this one individual. If it is imperative that your story covers all possible cases, it is sometimes better to not use a main character. Storytelling can be difficult to reconcile with comprehensiveness.

Tip 7: be careful with popularising (but not too careful)

Knowledge workers sometimes worry that adding a main character to their story will make it too ‘popular’, or that people will perceive it as emotionally manipulative. We feel sorry for Sam, while the main point is that projections suggest that the number of 85-year-olds will double in twenty years. We sympathise with Baldev from India and Yusuf from Pakistan, but that might make us extra sceptical about the noble intentions of a technology multinational.

If you think your audience is not receptive to a more popular message with a main character, you can put more emphasis on the main message of your story, and less on the narrative elements. In some sectors, like the care sector, describing a case is a good option. It has the same effect that a main character would have but it is perceived as less popularising.

Still, you shouldn’t be too worried about popularisations or emotional manipulation. The effect on your audience is often less strong than you think. Even a fact-focused audience often finds it easier to understand and appreciate a story than a dense document. Moreover, people often overestimate their audience’s knowledge level: even people whose work is quite similar to yours may need a little bit of popularising.

Tip 8: use your characters efficiently

It can be difficult to communicate clearly about complex topics quickly and concisely. Adding details about a character can make your story way too long. Or at least, that is an objection people sometimes have.

They are right: adding a main character generally makes stories longer. But Sam’s story (3,5 minutes) shows that a main character can be used pretty efficiently. The trick is to replace parts of the abstract, argumentative storyline by narrative elements. If you do that, you don’t have to explain much: your audience can fill in the main conclusions. When Sam calls for an ambulance, it is instantly clear that the non-integrated care system is expensive.

Tip 9: let your main character work for you

Are you working on a presentation, a poster or an animation? Choosing a main character can have a positive effect on your creative process. Your main character will automatically make your story more visual, which helps you find captivating images for abstract concepts, such as ‘innovative technologies’ – you just show Sam with his medicine dispenser.

Using a main character can also make it easier to add suspense, emotion and humour to your story. A main character gives you the opportunity to use a whole range of storytelling tricks. You can give her or him a specific goal and add obstacles, dilemmas and conflict on the road towards that goal; for instance, you can introduce a ‘villain’ who sabotages the ‘hero’. When your protagonist successfully overcomes these obstacles, your audience will experience this as a happy end.

Tip 10: experiment

Making a story with a main character requires storytelling skills. Not all knowledge workers are convinced that they themselves possess these skills. But, though it can seem a difficult task, you don’t have to be a super-creative communications expert to tell a story with a main character. In our Analytic Storytelling training I meet a lot of medical researchers who can pretty quickly prepare a nice five-minute presentation with a patient or a doctor as a main character. My advice is therefore: don’t be scared, just experiment. And if you are convinced of the benefits of using a main character, but you really struggle to come up with one, you can always ask a storytelling professional.


Arnaud is trainer, advisor and text writer at Analytic Storytelling. He helps customers to send out a clear and convincing message in both words and images.