Welcome to my Trilogy of Storytelling Articles.
You’re reading Part 2 of 3. If you missed Part 1, it’s all about the ‘Big Picture’ of stories. I highly recommend you check that out before you jam onto this. Not doing so could leave you bewildered and feeling kinda ‘dumb’. So check it out now.
Feel free to jump to the other articles:
If you’re new here, these videos are for Visionaries. The dictionary defines a Visionary as a person who ‘thinks about or plans the future with imagination or wisdom”.
I define a Visionary as anyone whose ideas can educate and entertain others, and ultimately changes the way society thinks. A Visionary can be an artist, entertainer, educator, entrepreneur, author, speaker, or coach. The list goes on.
If you dream up cool stuff then actually take action to create it, you must know the art of storytelling. It’ll improve everything you create and help you connect with your Audience in a more impactful way.
In this article we’re going to talk about the two main reasons to tell a story: Audience and Character.
Your Audience is going to hear the story, so if you’re not thinking about them you will fail from the start. This is because you must always think about the Audience Experience. Your Audience wants to feel you care about them. You do this by telling them a story you believe they want to hear. You also give them a character (a Protagonist, the main character of your story) who they can cheer for and empathize with.
The Audience can’t relate to your story if they don’t empathize with your Character.
Empathy is when someone understands, or relates to, someone else’s feelings.
As defined in the dictionary: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
If you don’t create a character your Audience can empathize with, they won’t be interested in your Story. You can create characters that are seemingly un-relatable, like the famous Pixar Lamp…it’s a lamp!
But because the writers gave the lamp the characteristics of a parent (something we can all relate to…not necessarily because we’ve been parents but we’ve all known or experienced parental figures). Empathy can make any character, even a serial killer like Hannibal Lecter relatable for the Audience.
Now let’s talk about Audience.
Oh yeah, before I forget. I made 3 awesome (and totally free) training videos on story (plus a guidebook of notes). I suggest you click the red ‘Download These Now’ button below to get instant access. The videos perfectly compliment this article.
The entire point of telling a story is to entertain the Audience. In order for an Audience to be entertained, they first need to be interested in the story. If you study marketing, you know that the prospective buyer will only listen to your marketing message if you answer the question they’re thinking, “What’s in it for me?”
Here’s a great quote from John Steinbeck:
“If a story is not about the hearer they will not listen . . . A great lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting–only the deeply personal and familiar.”
That means a great storyteller must understand who their Audience is.
Let me give you an example:
If you were going to tell a story to highly religious people you’d want to keep it G rated. Having raunchy comedy and sex jokes probably wouldn’t go over too well. Similarly, if you’re making an animated film for small children you’d be best to avoid exceptionally frightening or vulgar material.
Know your Audience
The easiest way to tell your Audience the story they want to hear is to understand them. What are they interested in? What gets them excited? What are their values? Who are their enemies, and what are their fears, phobias, dreams and desires?
In my Visionary Planner trainings I show you how to use free data you can find online to get a better understanding on what your Audience wants. This info really lets you ‘get to know them’ so you can entertain them. Remember that when they’re entertained, they’re emotionally engaged. And when they’re emotionally engaged they’re paying attention to your story.
Here are eight common questions you must be able to answer before you start mapping out your story.
Audiences want to have fun!
If a story isn’t fun, then no one will care. Have you ever listened to a story that had no element of fun? It probably made you uncomfortable because it was too serious.
Audiences require a healthy dose of fun to keep things engaging. Shakespeare was a master of this. He would always include a comic relief character to keep things somewhat light. The most famous tragedy of all, Romeo and Juliet, features a number of ‘comic relief’ characters. They always seem to pop up and do something funny, or say something witty, immediately after a horribly tragic moment.
One of my favorite suspense films is the original Halloween by John Carpenter. He studied Hitchcock and took his lesson of suspense to heart. His film teases the audience to keep them having fun and engaged. There are a number of close calls in the film that feel more like a thrill ride and less like a slasher film. He even has tons of silly teenage jokes to make you smile along with the characters. This humor contrasts the horror elements of the story so the horror never becomes too unbearable.
If you aren’t having fun telling your story then your Audience won’t be having fun listening.
Long story short…make it fun!
Now that you fully understand the importance of knowing your Audience, we need to focus on why characters are so important. This is because it’s through the characters that your Audience will experience the Story.
As Stephen King (another master of suspense) says:
“I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.”
If we once again think of a story like a roller coaster, you’ll remember that the protagonist (or main character whom the Audience will follow throughout the story) is the ‘Rider’ who is strapped into the ‘train’ that moves along the ‘track’.
In real life the Audience is the Rider. They’re experiencing the thrills and chills of the ride. But because a movie can’t (at least not yet) put you physically inside the world of the story we need a surrogate for the Rider.
This is where the Protagonist comes in.
A great Protagonist is a character the Audience can empathize with. Remember that empathy is when we relate to someone else’s feelings.
Once the Audience empathizes with a character, they will place themselves in their shoes. They will experience what the character is experiencing. If the character is in a tense situation, the Audience gets tense. If the character is experiencing something astonishing, the Audience feels astonished.
The phrase “emotional contagion” is the idea that humans will synchronize their personal emotions with the emotions expressed by those around them. It’s just like a tuning fork. Audiences tune into the emotions within the story consciously and unconsciously. This means that an emotion conveyed by the Protagonist will become ‘contagious’ to the Audience.
The best Storytellers are able to make sure the Audience fully relates to the Protagonist during Act 1 so they’re able to care enough to continue to be engaged in the story for Acts 2 and 3.
Let me ask you a question…
Have you ever sat on the edge of your seat worrying if a character will survive? I remember feeling claustrophobic while watching Gravity.
Or ever sobbed your eyes out when a character died on screen? To this day I bawl my eyes out at the end of E.T.
The reason you feel these strong emotions is because the storytellers made sure you related to the Protagonist and other characters. Their emotional journey is your emotional journey. These storytellers literally create an emotional roller coaster where you merge with the Protagonist as they travel along their journey.
When stories, especially movies, haven’t written characters you empathize with, they have to resort to spectacle.
Explosions, boobs and extraneous special effects are a tell-tale sign that the storytellers have no control over their story.
Conversely some of the best stories are devoid of any of these elements and still manage to get their Audience’s to fall in love. A recent example of this is the amazing film ‘Room’. It’s a drama about a mother and son trapped inside one room. But because we so deeply empathize with the characters we’re able to sit engaged for two hours.
There is a scientific basis behind what I’m telling you. Empathy happens due to a thing called ‘mirror neurons’. These little buggers live in our brains and fire off in a ‘mirror effect’ of what our senses are picking up. I’ve previously talked about how our emotions are like a tuning fork. We can tune into the emotions of others. This phenomena is the ‘mirror neurons’ working their magic in your head.
Humans, who are pack animals, developed these neurons as a way for us to survive. In order to survive we needed to group together into packs. What kept us from fighting each other was our ability to empathize with the pack’s emotions. As a storyteller you can leverage this aspect of human psychology to make your Audience experience the same emotions as your characters. Therefore, the more drama you place your character into, the more of an emotional journey your Audience gets to safely experience. I say ‘safely’ because it’s fun to watch Jurassic Park and see dinosaurs from the safety of our living rooms.
So how do you create characters that the Audience will empathize with, and cheer for?
The first thing you need is to pick each Character’s Archetype.
3 Ingredients to a Great Character
The most beloved characters of all time follow two basic ingredients.
The first is ‘Likability’. This is where you design your character to have traits that you know your Audience will like.
The second is ‘Contradiction’. As Storytellers we always want to engage our Audience’s curiosity. The best way to do this is ask questions and set up ‘puzzles’ that they have to figure out. For a character, you can set up contradictions that make the Audience curious about the character. A classic example of this is Indiana Jones. He’s a swashbuckling adventurer by night, but a nerdy College Professor by day. These two character traits are polar opposites of each other thus making Audiences wanting to figure out what makes Indy tick.
The third is ‘Character Arc’. This is when the Protagonist learns something over the course of the story. Just like real life people, characters in a story need to make mistakes and learn from them.
A big thing to remember before we talk about these three ‘ingredients’ is that Audience will relate to characters that look and sound like them. If you’re making films for children, then your main characters should have childlike appearances or personalities. If you’re making a film for country-western fans then making your Protagonist look a little country will only benefit your Audience’s experience of the story.
Pixar Character Arc Secrets
Here is a great formula for setting up a kick-ass character arc. I learned this from a lecture by Michael Arndt. He is the screenwriter of Toy Story 3 and developed the story for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This formula will help you make sure your Audience can relate to your character.
1) First you need to figure out what the Protagonist loves more than anything else. Since we’re pack animals, this is usually to have the love or admiration of others. In Toy Story Woody loves being Andy’s favorite toy. In Harry Potter, he loves his new friends Ron and Hermoine.
2) Next you need to show how they have an unnatural fear of losing that thing. We can all relate to the fear of losing the things we love. In marketing, fear of loss (like missing out on a sale price) is a key motivator to getting customers to buy.
3) Next you must show that trouble is on the horizon but the character is totally ignorant. In Toy Story, Woody’s owner Andy is having a birthday party. The other toys are worried that Andy might get new toys and thus end up throwing some of them out. But Woody is unnaturally optimistic (hence he is destined to have his greatest fear realized…not being Andy’s favorite toy). The Audience’s curiosity is aroused because they can see trouble on the horizon, but the Protagonist is ignorant. This creates curiosity and suspense in the Audience. The key ingredients to them paying attention!
4) Then you must make them lose the thing they love. This is their greatest fear! Sure, you can make your Protagonist fear silly things, like how Indiana Jones fears snakes, but having your character face their biggest emotional fear is what really allows your Audience to fall in love with your Protagonist. In any relationship, you feel intimacy with another person when they allow you to see their vulnerability. The same holds true for the relationship between Character and Audience.
5) Next, the Protagonist has to do something ‘not so nice’ as a reaction to losing the thing they love so much. They take action in hopes they will reclaim their lost thing, but actually make things much worse. This action is what propels them, and the story, forward into Act 2.
To let you really understand this, let’s use Toy Story 1 as an example.
The film starts out where it’s clear Woody loves Andy. He loves being Andy’s favorite toy, and he won’t let the other toys do anything that might compete with him. He protects his status at all costs, but we like him because he embodies great traits…he’s funny, inspiring and a leader. On top of that, chicks dig him!
Next up we find that Andy is having a birthday (with new presents). All the toys are scared they’ll get replaced. But Woody is overly cocky and unable to conceive that there is the slightest chance that Andy would stop making him his favorite toy.
Andy then gets Buzz as his new toy and Woody is no longer Andy’s favorite. This changes the fabric of Woody’s life and social status amongst the other toys. Suddenly everyone is fascinated with Buzz and Woody feels left out.
In reaction to this, Woody tries to get rid of Buzz by knocking him behind a desk so Andy can’t find him. But ‘Murphy’s Law’ kicks in and the worst thing happens. Woody’s plan backfires and Buzz is knocked out the window. All the other toys see this and assume Woody is a psycho!
The others toys react and throw Woody out the window. They tell him he must bring Buzz back or they won’t let him back inside Andy’s room. This drives the story forward into Act 2 where Woody has a very clear goal. He’s got to retrieve Buzz and bring him back to Andy’s room. Of course it won’t be that simple…
Here’s a video by Arndt that explains all…
2 Types of Characters
Now that you know how to use Likability and Contradiction to craft compelling characters, let’s examine the different types of characters you can have.
Let’s think of characters as positive or negative. A positive character is someone we can relate to and cheer for. A negative character is someone whose want and morals we can recognize as traits we are against. The school bully, the evil corporate lawyer or the war-mongering overlord would be classic examples of ‘negative’ characters.
1) “Positive” Characters
Now that you have a solid overview on the types of Protagonists out there (for narratives and for marketing), let’s look at all the types of characters who assist the Protagonist. These are called Side Characters.
2) “Negative” Characters
Now you know that all storytellers must create compelling characters that the Audience gets emotionally invested in.
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In Part 3, the final article in this series, we’ll talk about Storytelling Structure. This is the secret sauce to telling stories people enjoy.
Finally, be sure to download your Story Map and Free Guidebook. This will give you a better understanding of the structure of stories. Simply click the red ‘Download These Now’ button below for free instant access.