character selection

No one likes a pitiful protagonist

Deadpool is refreshing because there are no sacred cows. A few tropes sure: hero (or antihero? who cares) who seeks revenge and a British villain and this girlfriend…I won’t spoil it. The point is some storytellers use a heavy handed justification for why the protagonist is going full speed after his objective. I MUST AVENGE HER! I MUST PROVE THEM WRONG! DID YOU SEE WHAT HE DID TO MY FACE? I like how Deadpool doesn’t bog us down with it. Ok, maybe I have a little spoiler below.

Manipulating your audience into caring about a character never works. 
I love the introduction between Wade and Vanessa. They bond over dysfunctional childhoods without making us pity them. It doesn’t matter why people fall in love—the audience understands it is a motivator for a protagonist. We root for Wade and Vanessa because there is genuine love. We see it and relate to it.  Adding a ton of feel-sorry-for-us backstory would be overkill. Too bad this happens in real life. Like when it ruined my sweet corn Thai salad the other day.

Spend more time on redemption than tragedy.
I went to a fundraiser lunch for an awesome foster care/adoption agency last week. The opening speaker was a middle schooler who talked about his time in foster care and his great life with his adoptive parents now. He glossed over the bad stuff that caused his removal and emphasized the good stuff since his placement. His tale was effective because he promoted the thing that matters—support for the agency that found his forever family and would help more kids like him. But then the keynote speaker came up and killed the vibe.

She talked at length about the misery of being removed from her parents and her bad foster care experience 30 years ago. She shared nothing to inspire the audience to support an agency that makes things better for kids in the same situation. Really her story was about a teacher who cared—a story that belonged at a different fundraiser. She didn’t mention the agency. Were we supposed to feel bad about her past and then conclude we should donate to the agency now? It was a miss. Fortunately, the final speaker came up and described his supportive foster mother and that we should support parents like her. He skipped over his removal entirely. He made a nice bookend to the opening and got us all back on message.

We care about characters because of their universal humanity. 
Audiences can appreciate loss, unrequited love, abandonment, etc. There is no need to lay it on thick. A light nod can speak volumes. So in Deadpool, even when it could have gotten dark or sappy the writers kept it light so we could focus on the now. At the fundraiser, the best speakers let us imagine their backstories and instead focused on the solution we (via our dollars) could influence. Wins.

For more on the perils of emotional manipulation in storytelling, especially in character development, check out this post form the anime blog by Bobduh.

You Might Also Like

1 Comment

  • Reply
    How to use a story to control people’s emotions – Lisa Kagan, Story Coach
    August 30, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    […] Instead of thinking, “I will make an urgent announcement that makes people panic and then they will do my bidding” try for some other more genuine emotion that would get them to comply. Instead of “fill out this insurance form on time or you’ll make a lot of annoying paperwork for me, you lazy bum” go with “fill out this insurance form on time and I will make sure your kids are covered, you loving parent.” It’s less manipulative, too. […]

Leave a Reply