Make Me Care with Characters


We often think characters tell stories, but maybe we should challenge kids to think about it this way:  Characters ARE stories.

Whenever students pitch stories, they need to think about two things first:

1—What will you show me?  What are the potential visuals?  This isn’t radio.  We need to see stuff.  Professionals may think about it differently, because they are more experienced at finding video content for tough topics.  But at the high school level, over the last 27 years, we have had a lot of topics pitched that eventually got derailed by a lack of visuals.

2—Who is your character?   This is where students get lost in the weeds.  They have passion for a story, and can not wait to cover it.  But they forget that the audience just won’t care if the piece lacks strong characters.  Stories about things, or concepts, or issues, are usually not as interesting or memorable as stories about people.  People bring those issues, or concepts to life.

Finding characters is a challenge, even for pros.  Teens will automatically run to Google.  They can not help themselves.  But you can’t Google a great character.  You have to talk to human beings.  Interact with something other than a device.

Here are some things to discuss with broadcast students when they are in need of characters for their stories.

*Who is impacted by this story?  Think of every single person who has a interest in it.  Al Tompkins from Poynter teaches journalists to consider the stakeholders, which will lead to great characters, and help you cover all sides.

*Who is the most animated, involved, vocal person you can talk to?  Look around.  Listen.  Who is passionate about the topic?  Chances are, they will provide the best input and strongest emotion.

*Who is overlooked?  If you are assigned to cover the football team, which is always big news on campus, think about the supporting cast, the ones who are far removed from the spotlight.  Anyone can cover the star player or the head coach.  What about the other folks seldom interviewed or considered?

*Skip the experts when you can.  Too many times, teens want to talk to suits about a topic, even when those suits are going to be dry, overly cautious, and not very compelling.  Why talk to the principal about the potholes in the student parking lot when you can talk to students who drive over them every day, or maybe the maintenance guy who has to fill them?

*Get out of your comfort zone.  Always.  One reason students miss great characters is because they do not want to venture into unfamiliar territory to find a person worth covering.  Try this on your next show:  Nobody can cover any person they are acquainted with.  “If you know them, you can’t cover them.”  You can only talk to people you have never met.  This will prevent the easy (boring) stories about friends in the youth group, or the story everyone already knows about the classmate with the weird pet.  

*When you are covering a social topic or teen issue, great characters are your only hope.  Nobody is going to relate to a bunch of statistics they can find online themselves about poverty, or eating disorders, or overworked teens.  BUT…follow a young person who doesn’t have a home, or find a young girl who can talk about overcoming bulimia, or spend time with the senior who is working 35 hours a week and may not graduate…now you have my attention. 

I will care about those important topics because you put a face on them.