Characters: Who Inhabits Your Story?

Today’s post is about the characters who inhabit our stories.  How do we identify and manage them?  The next post shall be about character development.

The following story is based on a real story, with a lot of detail changes!

I was utterly devastated by the death of my wife and concealed my grief by going into the office as if nothing had happened.  The “crying man, that everyone calls laughing boy”.  My grief expressed itself despite my best efforts.  My decisions were off and my staff saw it.  They didn’t know why.

At first, they coped with my contradictory directions in their own way.  Some did as they were told and sulked when I told them off for not doing what I meant to ask them.  Others did their own thing, exercised their own judgement and argued when I told them off for not doing what I said.  Some feared me and looked for new jobs, other planned to oust me from my post by appealing to senior management.

It was only when my PA opened a bereavement card, sent to the office by a business acquaintance who did not have my home address that the staff found out the truth.  Now they understood what was going on, they came up with a plan to get their old boss back.

Types of Character

Many business-owners’ stories lack characters.  Where they focus on the owner’s life story, it feels as if they sail through life with little contact with other people.

Sometimes the story includes many undifferentiated names, with little to help us follow where they enter, take part and depart the story.  Moira, Annie and Helen may have all been great friends but why should I care about them?  Maybe one of them accompanied you on some enterprise – but do I really need to know?  The story may work better if you are unaccompanied, despite what happened in real life.

Alternatively, there are no characters apart from the protagonist.  Parents, brothers and sisters, wives and children are mentioned in passing but have little traction in the story.

A Few Basic Characters

Many people play various roles in your story.  Your father may have been supportive mostly but what about that time he stood in your way?  Is he hero or villain? 

You don’t need all these in every story but when someone appears, ask what role they play.  If none, why mention them?

  • Dependents –  these are people who you fight for or should fight for.  Your family – aged parents, spouse and children.  Other dependents may be employees.  Your decisions mean kept or lost livelihoods.  Whoever they are, give them agency.  I expect you work to provide for your family.  But what say do they have?  Do they actively help or stand in your way?  Are there times of conflict with them?
  • Companions – these people strive alongside you.  They are on your side but have their own agency and motivation, strengths and weaknesses.  At heart they are allies, except when your story is about betrayal.
  • Helpers or Guides – these people support you but do not work alongside you.  They may be formal coaches or consultants, who bring new ideas to your story.  Or informal, in fairy tales they can be elders or young children.
  • Villains – these people bring tension to your story.  They stand in your way and thwart your ambitions.  They are not necessarily bad people.  Most villains believe sincerely they do right and you are the villain!  If you need to spice up your story, introduce a villain.

The Perils of the Short Story

Most stories used in a business are short.  Short in comparison with a novel, where there is ample space to develop character. 

In a story with clear character development, the protagonist and others, change as a result of the story.  The challenge is to show change to the protagonist by the end of the story.

So, flag up the problem at the start.  What problem?  You may define the problem as the need to make profit, some threat to a business, a customer in trouble.  These are all predictable issues.  The interesting question is why the protagonist is not able to solve their problem.  They have a character flaw and we need to see them change as they solve the problem.

For example, a business owner faced by a major threat to their business.  She’s a self-made woman and rejects assistance.  She got to where she is today under her own steam.  As the story develops, she finds she cannot solve this problem on her own.  She must trust her employees, who between them resolve the issue.  Now the owner has learned teamwork and she grows her business further.

But look closely at that outline.  This story is potentially huge.  Not only do we get to know the protagonist and see the change in her attitude, we need to know her employees.  Describing how the contribution each makes is discovered, accepted by the protagonist and how each person is accepted by the team could easily run to several hundred pages! 

Here’s the challenge.  You have a 10 minute talk to tell this story and do justice to the business owner and her team.  A skilled storyteller can tell the same story at length or down to a minute or so. 

When You Are the Protagonist

It is worth experimenting with making someone else the protagonist in your story.  It makes sense to place yourself at the centre of the story but there are advantages to putting someone else at the centre.

The hero of any story is by definition flawed.  This may be hard to accept.  “Everyone is valued and no-one is too blameworthy”,  may be true but it makes for dull storytelling.  The question is, do you know your own flaws?  Can you see what really changed when you made that breakthrough?  Perhaps you see change in some other character who took part?

Look at the story from that character’s point of view and understand their motivation.  This means you become more sympathetic to their point of view, whatever role they played.  Can you see why the villain believed they were doing the right thing? 

As you empathise with other players, you see your behaviour in a new light.  You see their point of view and know the conflict from a new perspective.  You say: “looking back, I see I behaved as a complete …”.  You point to the person you were and show how everyone else stepped around you to do the right thing. 

The made up story at the head of this post, shows the problem from the perspective of those around the protagonist.  How do we handle development of the character at the core of that story?  I’ll follow up that question next time. 

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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