Eric May – Media Consultant




Character based storytelling

Stories are about people. If a viewer remembers anything about your story, it will be about the people in it. 

So how do you make your interview partners into “real” people- strong characters your viewers will empathize with and possibly even remember? 

Start by putting yourself in the place of the viewer. Just like you, and just the like person you are interviewing, if your viewers are human beings they’ve got a lot of difficulties and problems (and hopefully a lot of happiness, hopes, and dreams as well). 

Recognizing this basic human fact is a key to telling stories that people remember. Don’t assume that a role in a news making event or catastrophe makes someone a “real” person in the eyes of your audience. It probably doesn’t. 

What is more likely is, to your viewer, that person isn’t “real” at all- they are no more than a victim in today’s tragedy, and your audience won’t remember much about them. 

To transform a two-dimensional interview partner into a “real person” the viewers will be more likely to remember, you have to show the details of ordinary life. 

Consider your own life. Just like any “real person,” you have a job (or not), a family (or not), a place to live (or not), a car (or not), money worries (or not). A real person has habits, passions, beliefs, values, ideas, likes and dislikes. 

A real person gets up in the morning and goes to work, comes home at night and goes to bed. The President of Russia does it, the janitor at the high school does it. So does the postman, the lawyer, the TV actor, the scientist, the nurse, the prostitute, and the CEO. 

There’s only one difference between how all those people do all those things – the difference is the details. Revealing those simple details is fascinating and surprisingly resonant for your viewers. 

It’s a fact: every one of your viewers is interested in the details of other people’s lives. Including as many of these details as you can, along with the main points of your story, can make difference between a standard interview subject in a standard news story and a character your viewers will empathize with and remember. 

To make your interview partner into a memorable character, show the ordinary details of their life. What's their job? Who are their colleagues? How long do they work every day? How do they get there and back? 

Where do they live? How do they live? Are they rich, poor or in between? Show their family. Are they married, do they have children or not? How many? What are their dreams, hopes, and fears? Bring them out in your story. 

Let's take an example. Say you’re doing a story on a chemical spill that made people in a neighborhood sick. You've got about two hours to get out to the scene, make the shots you need, and get back with the story. It’s standard journalism to find the people who were sick, ask them what happened, what’s the condition of their health, and what they will do now. 

If you’re doing a better than average job, you’ll make sure you choose the location of the interview carefully– in a location that visually connects the interview partner with what happened– in this case showing a chemical factory or perhaps a contaminated river or stream behind the interview subject. 

It’s competent, but it isn’t enough to make your interview partner a character, a real person, someone your viewers will remember. To do that, you’ve got to give your viewers much more information about what kind of a person he really is. 

Keep in mind that the way to develop strong, memorable characters doesn’t always have to be in the text. Making visual connections is sometimes enough to help your viewer understand, empathize, 
and compare. 

Good pictures alone can tell the story about a person’s condition– how they live, work, and their values– and often much more efficiently than your narration. If you doubt it, remember why you’re always choosing your interview location carefully, based on the background. 

Here's how to develop a memorable character: find out what happened and have him show you. If he’s a neighbor, go to his house. Ask him what happened when he got sick. If it was from a glass of water from the tap, have him show you. If he was standing by the window and inhaled the poison, or was mowing the lawn, or watering the roses, have him show you how it happened. 

Go beyond that. How does he live? Show his kitchen, show the living room. Is he rich or poor, is he black or white? How old is he? How long has he lived there? Is he married? What does his wife think? If he’s got small children, are they in danger? Show them. If he’s sick, can he still work and support his family? What are his fears, hopes and dreams? Have those things changed because of what happened?

Start including these things, and a two dimensional figure in a news story starts becoming someone the viewers will be more likely to empathize with, compare with themselves, and remember. 

Experienced reporters and camera people may be asking at this point– ok, but we didn’t have the time to do more than get the interview and get out of there. My response is this: your viewers don’t know that, and your viewers don’t care. 

To anyone who says they couldn’t get a certain element because they ran out of time, or couldn’t make a phone call, or got lost, or the camera died, or the dog ate it, I can only say: your viewers don’t care about your production problems. 

All the viewers care about is your result- what they see on the screen during their nightly newscast. And if the result is something they’ve seen by now dozens of times from dozens of different people in basically the same way, they’re not only not going to remember it, they may even be getting a little tired of it. 

Keep in mind, the effective techniques you and your colleagues and competitors have been using for years are being seen by more and more people more frequently. 

Today’s media saturated viewers have seen it all before, and they are sophisticated enough to recognize that. If they don’t turn you off because you’re offering nothing really new, at the very least they won't remember very much about all your hard work. 

To make your stories memorable, you’ve got to go farther than most viewers expect and most reporter/camera teams deliver. 

To do that, start thinking about how people think; think about how you think. Especially in the most horrific situations, your viewers secretly ask themselves- how would I handle this? What would I do if that was me? 

It may be fear, it may be curiosity, it may be envy, maybe self-satisfaction or schadenfreude. Viewers have a strong desire to compare their life situation with the person’s in your story. 

If you satisfy that need by showing as much of your interview partner’s life as possible, the story’s impact on your viewer is that much stronger. The viewer starts to make connections like: “He’s just like me.” Or, “I would have never done that.” 

Now your viewers are starting thinking about your character on a much deeper level. This kind of storytelling has a much stronger impact on them. 

The person in your story is no longer just someone being interviewed, but someone real, someone who can inspire deep feelings, be they empathy or revulsion. 

Bring these values to your story when you are shooting it. If you’ve got just a half an hour to shoot, take ten minutes to show something about your interview subject's real life– if you can’t show where he works, where he lives, or his family, show his car, his clothes, his hands. 

Think about ordinary things. Ask how old he is, if he’s married and has kids. Put them in your story. Why? Because just about every one of your viewers is or was married, has or will have kids, has or doesn’t have a job. 

So take the time to define your characters. At the very least– show some human details about your interview partner’s life every time. And if you’ve got the time, show as much as you can– there are no limits. 

The more human details you include, the more your viewers will respond. You’re explaining that your interview subject is a person just like them, and that has a strong impact on your viewers. 

The more ordinary details of a person’s life you include, the more the viewers will understand your interview partner. The more they will remember them, as a real person. And the more they will remember your story.