This post is part of a series that explores the Basics of Educational Storytelling. Largely taken from my master”™s thesis, The Value and Principles of Educational Storytelling (which can be read here), this I will lay the foundation for an educational storytelling model regardless of setting and medium. We look at the basic elements of storytelling, five guiding principles and educational stories, and practical tips.

Check out the rest of the series.

See also Elements of Story: Plot and Elements of Story: Setting

Building Blocks of Story

Before we can dive into educational stories, we must investigate stories in general. Scholars and storytellers share a favorite past-time: arguing about the elements of a story. Some definitions include close to a dozen like setting, plot, character, theme, motif, symbol, point of view, and so forth. Since this is an introduction, and not a series on the elements of story, we will stick to a simpler definition of a story:

A person (character) doing something (plot) in a place and time (setting).

I will stand on the shoulders of three storytelling giants to look at each element in turn. Robert McKeeChristopher Vogler, and Donna Cooper are three of the most respected screenwriting and story construction teachers. While they teach screenwriting, the principles they have discovered are effective in any medium.


So, we begin with character. What exactly is a character?

Robert McKee (1997)

Character and characterization are not synonyms. “Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being”. True character “is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure- the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation. True character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. A person can be rich, poor, black, white, tall, short, grumpy, passive, wiry, or mellow – all characteristics. Character shows who they really are, how they respond to situations when heat is applied.

Consider the following as an example from McKee’s Book:

“Two cars motor down the highway. One is a rusted-out station wagon with buckets, mops and brooms in the back. Driving it is an illegal alien, a quiet, shy woman working as a domestic for under the table cash. Along side her is a glistening new Porsche driven by a brilliant and wealthy neurosurgeon. Two people who have utterly different backgrounds, beliefs, personalities, and languages- in every way their characterizations are the opposite of each other. 

Suddenly, in front of them, a school bus full of children flips out of control bursting into flames, trapping the children inside.  Now, under this terrible pressure, we’ll find out who these two people really are. … The domestic worries that if she gets caught, she’ll be [deported]. The surgeon fears that if he’s injured and his hands burned … the lives of thousands of future patients will be lost. Let’s say they both hit the brakes and stop. In the midst of the horror each realizes there’s only a second left to rescue one of the many children still inside. How does the doctor react? In a sudden reflex does he reach for the white child or the black child closer to him. Which way do the housekeeper’s instincts take her? Does she save the little boy? Or the little girl cowering at her feet?”

When pressure is applied, character is revealed and characteristics are left behind. Even so, great storytelling does not end with well-developed character. “The finest writing reveals arcs or changes in that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.”

Christopher Vogler (2007)

Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell discovered fascinating trends in fairy tales and myths: reoccurring figures and structures that transcended culture and society. This idea is called The Hero’s Journey, and takes a hero from their ordinary world into a special world in a quest for some goal. Along the way, several archetypes surface in the form of characters. These archetypes may have many different characteristics, but they all share certain trademarks. Christopher Vogler (2007) synthesized these archetypes into a modern, practical book The Writer’s Journey.

Major Archetypes

  1. Hero– The Hero is the willful character whose world is upset by some event and sets out into the special world to bring everything into balance again. It is this character’s choices that make the most dramatic changes to the plot. He or she grows because of the journey and ultimately faces the Shadow (p. 29-38).
  2. Shadow – The Shadow can be either a character or a force of antagonism, but whatever its form, the Shadow is what stands between the Hero and the Object of Desire (p. 65-70).
  3. Mentor– Joseph Campbell called the Mentor the Wise Old Man or Woman. This figure guides the Hero through the unknown because they have traveled that way before. The Mentor is a source of answered questions, important gifts, and a prodding along that the Hero occasionally needs to keep going (p. 39-48).
  4. Herald– The Herald is the force or character who delivers the call to adventure to the hero. This may be done by bringing news, initiating a challenge, or the force behind a meeting (p. 55-58).

There are many other archetypes: allies, tricksters, eternal boys, and the like We will talk about archetypes more when we discuss Hero Audience Bonding.

Donna Cooper (1997)

Donna Cooper offers practical advice for developing characters. She breaks heroes down into four basic types: the The Everyman Hero, The Idol Hero, The Underdog Hero, and the Lost Soul Hero. These heroes are “defined by their level of ability of skill and capacity to deal with change” (p. 94).

The Everyman Hero  is exactly that, a person the audience can identify with on nearly every level. The everyman may be extraordinary, but no one (not even him) knows it at the beginning of the story.

The Idol Hero “is someone whose abilities are usually much higher than the average person’s, but the defining quality of the Idol heroes is their lack of self doubt or inner confusion” (p. 95). These heroes not only make great choices, but choices that are often inspired. Choices that no one but them could ever have made. Despite their amazing confidence, these heroes are not perfect. They have flaws.

The Underdog Heroes have very real disadvantages when compared to the Idol Hero or even the Everyman. “Their handicaps can be physical, emotional, social, or mental. They also must be legitimate in the character’s estimation as well as the audience’s, so that viewers will accept that this type of hero is working from a genuine disadvantage that must be overcome” (p. 98).

“Viewers don’t bond with [Lost Soul Heroes] through their highest hopes and dreams, but rather by recognizing some of their own darkest, most secret fears” (p. 100). They connect with the dark side of humanity. “This ultimately forces viewers to abandon their emotional identification with Lost Soul Heroes when they go too far into the dark corners of life” (p. 101).

What’s Next?

Characters are central to any story. In educational storytelling, it is the characters more than any other element that teach and/or learn the lessons. Creating solid characters derived from timeless archetypes, but presented in new and interesting ways will make your story engaging. And before a story can transform it must engage the audience.

Next, we will look at plot.

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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