Good stories have strong central characters

Humans are the most interesting creatures on earth. Readers, in turn, are most interested in other people. It’s why the “head shot” – an image of a person’s face – has been and remains the most popular genre of news photograph.

When interviewing someone, give them the opportunity to reveal something about themselves and their character.

Dr. Mario Garcia, CEO of Garcia Media and founder of the the graphics & design program at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, has 40 years of experience that includes redesigning The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

“Take a sample of a newspaper to a focus group, and it does not take a specialized eye-tracking computer to see how the eyes rest on and read the head shots,” Garcia writes. “They are quick encyclopedic references to who is in the story. Like headlines — and sometimes even more than so — head shots alert readers to the ‘what’ of the story as well.”

One approach to developing a strong central character is to think about what kinds of information can make a “head shot” – a character in a story – come alive.

A strong central character is more than an anecdote. Getting a quote and placing it in a story like a piece of furniture provides words but little “voice.”  Missing is the detail about character or circumstance a reader needs to compare and contrast, to connect, with the speaker. People are cardboard, names and faces fit into a journalistic template: the investigating officer, the anti-abortion protester, the conservative Republican, the liberal Democrat.

Often, just a little more reporting can capture the kind of detail that avoids stereotypes and provides interesting dimension to the people who inhabit stories.

Consider the difference between “the investigating officer” and “detective Jones, a third-generation police officer who recalls his father having a similar case that he never solved.”  Or between “pro-life protester” and “a pro-life mother of three adopted children.” Or the conservative Republican versus “a Republican who boasts that he has voted against every tax increase in his career.”

When interviewing someone, give them the opportunity to reveal something about themselves and their character:

  • Ask what they are doing. Then ask why they are doing it.
  • Ask what they are feeling. Then ask why they feel that way.
  • Ask what they think. Then ask why they believe what they do.

Quotes are mere words. Good stories, however, capture the meaning behind the words. That’s more likely to occur if the reader knows not just who’s speaking but something about the person’s background and character.

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and former API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel who previously co-chaired the committee.