Finding Your Character
Strong protagonists must be at the heart of compelling stories, as these examples demonstrate
April 2009

by Kathy Strauss

Find an interesting personality to drive your video stories. The strongest stories almost all have a central character that you care about by the video's end. The best way to look at a larger issue is to start with one individual's personal story. Begin with a unique or compelling person whose life tells a larger tale. Remember, people make the stories. Once viewers develop an attachment to the individual, they'll watch your video with much greater interest.

To find the central character you will need to make calls, ask lots of questions and do your research. Interview other people to get a variety of perspectives about this person. Do your homework up front and your story will be richer and more meaningful.

Here are half a dozen examples of big-picture stories that were made memorable by focusing in on a single human being:

A Day With Francisco

A Day With Francisco: Retirement didn't suit him, so 71-year-old Francisco Cardoza went back to work as a cheerful pharmacy greeter and interpreter. Customers are glad he did. (AARP)
Many people of retirement age are finding they still have the energy and inclination to remain in the work force. Many are taking jobs that are far different from how they spent their careers, but re-entering the work force invigorates them and they are inspiring role models for younger workers. You can find a bunch of experts to blather about that – or you can show one such individual who epitomizes that trend. “A Day With Francisco" (AARP) focuses on a 70-year-old character who is so bored that he goes back to work full-time as a greeter at a pharmacy chain in Manhattan. This video shows him charmingly interacting with fellow workers and customers. By telling the story visually about one unique individual, we are provided a window into a much larger issue. By the end of this 6-minute video, you'll want to meet this guy!

A Fighting Chance

Poverty and unemployment are huge problems on Native American reservations, and we often hear how difficult it is for people living there to break out of negative patterns. "A Fighting Chance" (N.Y. Times) is the hopeful story of a young woman boxer who lives on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in one of the nation's poorest counties. The video focuses in on a young single mother, Cheryl Ziegler, as she travels to an amateur boxing match with her trainer. Her story unfolds through interviews and scenes from her life set against the backdrop of the road trip. Ziegler's story was part of a larger text article about a trainer who formed a pro boxing network for Native Americans. Although much of the written story is about the trainer, Ziegler is clearly the character who stands out. She faces great odds but at age 18, she is a very sympathetic character on her way up in the boxing world and in her life. The video captures her enthusiasm, vitality and apprehensions. You'll be cheering for her success.

Hungry: Living with Prader-Willi Syndrome

Stories about rare diseases and disorders are abundant. What makes these stories powerful is when we are able to observe a real person who is living with a physical or emotional challenge, and see how they cope on a daily basis. "Hungry" (Howard County Times) zooms in on a central character to tell a complicated story about Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes an insatiable appetite. Rather than talking to doctors and other professionals about the disease, this story focuses on a boy who struggles with it every day, and his father who cares for him. Food has to be hidden and the kitchen is literally locked down to keep the boy from overeating. You feel the heartache in this kid and his dad, and you experience their close bond, which teaches you more about this disease than all the talking-head experts ever could.

Burned in the War

We can become numbed by the stories about hideous war injuries and the vets who have been maimed and disabled on the front lines. "Burned in the War" (NPR) is not your typical injured vet story. It is the story of Bobby Henline, who was the sole survivor when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb in Iraq. This story could easily have fallen into the trap of focusing on how awful his life is. Henline was severely burned and is now terribly disfigured with no ears and only one functioning eye. But he manages to go on living with a remarkably positive attitude and sense of humor. He even jokes about looking forward to playing with the prosthetic ears he'll be getting in an upcoming surgery. This close-up look at one vet's valor in the face of adversity speaks volumes about the collective challenges of all the disabled vets sent home from Iraq.

My Two Dads

Gay marriage is a hot issue and we've all heard the political pundits give their two cents' worth about the pros and cons. One recurring question is whether same-sex couples make good parents, and every "expert," from child psychologists to clergy, have weighed in. But has anyone bothered to ask the person most affected? In a refreshing approach to the subject, "My Two Dads" (San Francisco Chronicle) is told simply and honestly through the voice of 7-year-old Kiki, who attends her two fathers' recent wedding (made newly, if briefly, legal in California). When this plucky young girl describes the love in her family, while we see images of the three of them interacting affectionately, you don't need an expert to convince you that their dynamic is working just fine.

Part of the Family

Part of the Family: A deaf high school student learns to wrestle and teaches his teammates about communication, tolerance and understanding. (Reading Eagle)
Disabled athletes make compelling stories because the dramatic narrative is built in: triumph over adversity. "Part of the Family" (Reading Eagle) is the story of a deaf high school wrestler. There are thousands of deaf athletes on the planet, so what makes this story special? We get to see the impact of the athlete on the rest of the team. In and of itself, the young man's disability is interesting but not captivating. What grabs us is when we see how, through his disability, his peers get an unintended lesson in tolerance, understanding, and acceptance. Thanks to the videojournalist's interview skills, we get insights into this close-knit wrestling team through the words and actions of the young men and their coach. The video is also creatively subtitled to make it accessible to both hearing and deaf viewers -- and includes interviews with the wrestler himself, who, of course, speaks in (subtitled) sign language, drawing us even closer into his world.

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© Kathy Strauss

Kathy Strauss is a writer and researcher for and a freelance photojournalist based in Olympia, Wash. She has a wide variety of clients in the Pacific Northwest and teaches photography classes in her area. Prior to moving to Washington she was a staff photographer at the Duluth (Minn.) New-Tribune and freelanced for many regional and national news organizations. Kathy attended NPPA's 2008 multimedia immersion class in Louisville, Ky., and is fired up to continue her work in multimedia production. Kathy studied photojournalism with Ken Kobré at San Francisco State and received her BA in Journalism in 1991.