character selection

Be smart about who you make the star of your story

During a rapid-fire story session at a conference in Wenatchee, a board member shared a story about healing. In her first telling of the story, she talked about four characters:

  1.  the wife with the injured hand who was used to being independent
  2. the husband who was nervous about becoming a caregiver while his wife recovered
  3. the hospital nurse who was robotic and focused only on quick discharge
  4. the community nurse who worked magic, especially instilling confidence in the husband

The first take of the story didn’t have a core. Was it about the patient? Why were there two nurses? Why mention the husband when he doesn’t seem to matter? Why is this board member sharing this anecdote? What kind of organization is this…and what would my donation support?

Your story should spotlight your organization’s contribution—so cast accordingly
I probed a bit and it turned out the board member represented an organization that sends community-based nurses on home visits to help families adjust after medical trauma.
So for round two we went another route. We downplayed the wife and played up the husband; how he felt helpless in the hospital and then more overwhelmed as he and his wife were shuttled out. We removed the hospital nurse who was abrupt (because not all nurses are) and made it more about the feeling of being launched out of the medical scene, thus feeling underprepared and isolated. Finally, we introduced the community nurse.  We spent the bulk of the story showing all the ways she educated and supported the husband to be his wife’s caregiver. In the end TWO PEOPLE WERE HEALED! (Take out those checkbooks, donors…) 

Use unusual protagonists to prevent audience fatigue
We’ve heard countless tales of patients in sick beds. Talking about caregivers is less common. Switching the wife from being the protagonist to the husband made the story fresher.  Making the wife the beneficiary in the story still made her matter. Cutting out the hospital nurse lightened the load of characters the audience had to remember and there was no “maybe she is just an exceptional jerk” distraction. The community nurse got the most airtime because that is what the organization is all about.

Next time your story feels complex or bogged down, try removing and/or reassigning some characters.  Pick a good protagonist and make sure your organization shows up in a significant way.

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