The other day I attended a workshop about character-driven storytelling in documentaries. We live in the Platinum Age of TV: there is a glut of content, excellent content, available to us on multiple platforms, and so a TV show must have a compelling character and a powerful emotional pull to stand out in the crowd.
In scripted TV, you can write compelling characters and protagonists that people want to engage with and follow on their story’s journey – but in documentaries, you have to FIND those character from real life. Not only do you have to find the character, but you also have to find and build their story around them. Interestingly, both scripted and unscripted character-driven stories follow a similar formula:
- There must be a protagonist, the hero/heroine whose story you are following. This doesn’t always have to be one person, it could be a group or an organisation. For example, a group of scientists are trying to find the cure for cancer.
- There must also be an antagonist, something stopping the protagonist from achieving their goals. For example, in our story what’s opposing the scientists is lack of funding.
- There must be an overall desire, motivation or mission: the driving force of the story. This motivation can change over the course of the story. In our example, the overall mission is to cure cancer.
- There should also be an internal desire, an emotional element that motivates the protagonist. As above, this motivation can change, or there can be multiple internal desires. In our story, this could be that one of the scientists lost her son to cancer and wants to find a cure to save other mothers from the pain of losing a child.
So what sort of protagonist should we look for when we’re telling a character-driven story? Our character should be engaging and articulate, but they don’t have to be a decision-maker or someone at the top of their tree – in fact, it’s better if they’re not. They should, however, be someone who is experiencing the effect of circumstances or decisions that are influenced by other people. Most importantly, they need to undergo some sort of transformation over the course of the story arc. Our protagonist should not be the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning.
Now, how do we find these amazing characters?! The best thing to do is to phone people, talk to them, make the effort to meet them. In a world where a lot of work can be done remotely and online, this is a task that must be done in person. You can use personal judgement here: chances are, if you find this person engaging and compelling, your audience will too.