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.

So far, we have discussed the value of Educational Stories, and looked at the basic elements of storytelling (character, plot, and setting) and ran through an overview of our guiding principles for educational storytelling. The first is Hero Audience Bonding.

Throughout the rest of this series, we will talk about two kinds of learning: Identity/Social oriented and Process oriented. Identity oriented learning is that learning which stories have traditionally been useful: teaching morals, self-esteem, and social behavior. Process oriented learning has gotten less story-limelight. This is learning in disciplines like math and science, where the audience is capturing processes and methods for reproducing results.

Storytelling can be used for both types of learning, and we will discuss each. The cornerstone of educational storytelling is Hero Audience bonding. In short,

We create a hero the audience can learn through, vicariously.

As the hero progresses through the story, learning and problem solving, the audience will learn the same lessons — given they have bonded with the main character. So, what makes a hero “bondable?” Identification, empathy, complexity, and a want, a wound, and a need.

Identification

As a general rule, audiences like stories where the main character is similar to them. Audiences do this because they like to relate to the hero. They like to feel like it could just as easily be them going on this journey. By creating these identifiable trademarks, the storyteller allows the audience to understand the hero and sympathize.

Create connections in age, gender, social status,economic status, interests, and belief systems. This is not to say the story cannot be culturally diverse. The other characters, the world, the situations can be totally foreign. However, the hero must be identifiable. If the story’s audience is meant to go out to a very diverse audience and you have difficulty finding these trademarks, remember that “people are people no matter where you find them.” We are more alike than different. Everyone wants the approval of a parent. All find themselves insecure at times. Tap into these primary desires, and you will create an identifiable hero.

Audiences like to see themselves in the story.

Note: Children prefer stories where the protagonist is in the next stage of life. Fifth grade boys like stories about middle-school boys, etc.

Empathy

This is not the same as sympathy. Empathy occurs when the audience comes to the realization that, given similar circumstances, they would make similar choices. It moves beyond, “I understand” to “I feel what the character feels.” In short, they can put themselves in the hero’s shoes.

Empathy is created when the identifiable character is put in an identifiable situation. When the audience can say, “I’ve been there, I know what its like,” then they can see themselves in the hero’s position. Tap into emotion here, using vocabulary that expresses real, visceral feelings. Also, the use of sensory items is helpful. If the reader can remember the scent of a campfire, they will be more prone to empathize with your hero.

Believability

Empathy only occurs when the character feels real. Real characters have multiple dimensions, which causes them to react to circumstances as a real person would. It has been said that great characters have three dimensions. This is untrue. Great characters have as many dimensions as years of life.

A “dimension,” here, is defined as a contradiction. For instance, a good person who steals to feed his family. The dimensions can be subtle (a character acts differently in different surroundings) or blatant (a character who believes in the truth, but is part of a cover up). Don’t just give your characters dimensions, show the dimensions. We all struggle over our different natures. The moment your reader connects with these dimensional struggles is the moment they bond with your hero.

The character must also react to circumstances believably. It is a law of nature that all things take the path of least resistance. Characters are no exception. When life is thrown out of whack they will do the least possible to achieve the results they want: balance. When the forces of antagonism thwart that first step, a gap is created and the hero must react by forming a new plan. This too will follow the course of least resistance and this too will fail. So on and so on until climax.

Complexity

Lastly, in order for empathy and identification to occur, the character must be complex but not complicated. Complexity means having an array of dimensions (discussed above), backstory, future story, and motivations. Complicated means adding extra decorators that do not drive the character forward, but clutter up characteristics. See Difference between Character and Characterization.

A story is nothing more than a series of snapshots in the life of the hero. Storytellers must realize that the character existed before the story began and (likely) will continue afterwards. If the character does not continue, the world will continue in some form or other. It is the combination of circumstances and experiences that have come before that creates depth in a character. Just as a storyteller must understand every minute detail of the setting (even if not revealed) the storyteller must be able to answer questions about the hero, even if those questions are never raised.

Want, Wound, and Need

The growth and flaw are the core of hero-driven, educational stories. If the lesson is “hard-work pays off,” then the hero is lazy (at least to an extent). If the lesson is, “courage through strife,” then the hero is scared of something. If teaching process oriented skills, the hero’s flaw is related to the inability to master the skill at first. We will talk more about process oriented learning in its own post.

The hero’s flaw and growth revolve around three aspects of the hero.

The want is the obvious desire they are striving for: the relationship; the elixir of life; acceptance into the secret club; etc.

The need is the subconscious desire that drives the want. It is not the specific relationship that is the key; it is the need to be validated. The elixir of life isn’t really what drives; it’s a fear of death. The secret club isn’t the end all; instead the hero searches for acceptance.

The wound is one of the primary things holding the hero back. This may be inflicted by the villain or may be part of the circumstances. The relationship can’t. work because the hero comes from a lower class. The elixir oflife is out of reach because the hero is too old and feels useless. The secret club is out of bounds to someone who cannot read. These wounds may be real or imagined, but they always bear great weight in the eyes of the hero.

The wounded (flawed) hero searches for a want, but grows as they address the need.

What Next?

With a hero your audience can bond with in hand, it is time to begin the journey of the story. It is across the journey that the hero’s major flaw will be addressed. In our next post, we will create an abbreviated form of the Hero’s Journey as an plot-outline molded for educational stories.

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Chris Michaels

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