Get Into Character
Hello Friends,

Over the weekend, I buckled down and re-organized a spreadsheet for a podcast project I'm working on. Row after row of contact info for all of the people we're hoping to interview. It's a looooong list.

And yeah, I know what you're thinking. We did not get into this audio thing to spend our weekends combing through spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are for accountants. And people who enjoy math.

(No offense to all you amazing data journalists out there!)

Anyway, this spreadsheet is for a big, investigative, multi-episode narrative podcast. We've been working on it since September, and we've collected interviews with more than a dozen people. We have at least a dozen more to record.

So I'm looking at this spreadsheet, and I realize I have a problem. Two of the names on the list are completely unfamiliar to me.

And these are not two potential interviews. They're two COMPLETED interviews.

Now, I've been involved in every single interview for this project. I've coordinated interview release forms and helped write interview questions. And I've listened in. Suggested follow-ups. Reviewed the transcripts. Why are these names not familiar to me?!?

Am I losing my mind?!?

And look, this doesn't just happen when making podcasts. It can happen when listening to them too. The narrator says, "That's so-and-so again." And I'm sitting there thinking, "Who the heck is so-and-so?"

It's a problem.

Here's how you fix it.
Quirky character photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash.
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Stop thinking about the "voices" you need to get for your story. Take a note from Hollywood and instead think about "characters."

Voices give us information. They tell us what happened. What it all means.

Voices might even tell us how they felt about the thing that happened. What they wish would have happened instead.

Characters do all that, but they also have backstory. They have motivations.

They are biased. Flawed. Quirky.

They might be happy. Angry. Confused.

They have depth. They are memorable.

So, how do you go about turning your voices into characters?

As is often the case, I have a few suggestions.
Paint a Picture

I am not one of those people who needs a visual to go along with every voice. In fact, I sometimes find visuals to be a waste of time.

If someone is wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt at a rodeo, is that even worth mentioning? Like…isn't everyone at the rodeo wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt?

But a few key visuals can really help when you have a lot of voices in a story and need to make each one distinct.

Even better if you can wrap that visual into an anecdote.

Better yet when that anecdote tells you something about what's important to your character.

So, when Phoebe Petrovic wanted listeners to connect to the whistleblower who alerted the media to the improper actions of a district attorney in her podcast Open and Shut, she didn't tell us that he had white hair and a bit of a belly.

Instead she said…
"Balskus is a former prosecutor. These days he's mostly retired but does a bit of defense work. And his most important job is playing Santa for his grandchildren. When he grows his beard out, he's the spitting image."
This is how you pick a visual detail that has meaning! Not only do we know what this guy looks like, we know what's important to him. What brings him joy.
Embrace the Weird

I've mentioned this example before, but I'm going to mention it again in this context.

When I was first starting to make and edit narrative stories, the process wasn't always smooth. And I didn't exactly know why.

One day, I was listening to a rough cut made by one of my colleagues. And I was bored. Really, really bored.

So I went back and listened to the raw tape. And to my surprise, the interview subject was anything but boring! He was animated. And funny. And passionate.

And weird.

I asked the producer why he had cut the interview in the way that he had, and he said he didn't want to do something that could be seen as making fun of the guy. So he cut out anything that felt too strange or unusual.

But let's face it, weird people know they're weird. It's not a surprise.

If you take out everything that makes someone an individual, you're going to create something really boring.

Worse than that, you're going to create something that isn't true.

So go ahead and keep the weird. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a little strange.

Normal is boring. That's pretty much been my motto since the third grade. And I see no reason to change it now.
Go On A Tangent

One of the great joys of longform audio is that we get to stray from the main point every now and again. But when we're doing it right, we stray from the point in a way that brings us right around to the point we were trying to make.

And if the listener gets a good chuckle out of it, all the better.

My favorite example comes from reporter Lisa Hagen in NPR's No Compromise.

Check it out.
NARRATION: Alan Powell used to have real ferns on his porch.

ALAN POWELL: And I realized they were a pain in the ass.

NARRATION: He lives up by Lake Hartwell in Northeast Georgia. So you gotta pull those ferns inside when the weather drops. Anyway, he has fake ones now.

ALAN POWELL: Well, they work pretty good, because they're year round.
ALAN POWELL: Only problem is, I have inherited every god damn bird in the world, nesting in those things.
LISA HAGEN: Huh? Do you dislike having birds nests in them?
ALAN POWELL: I dislike having birds shitting on my porch is what I dislike.
Seriously, give me an anecdote about bird shit and I. AM. IN.
Add Unnecessary Details

I get it. Whether we're doing a :40 second spot for newscast or eight 40-minute episodes, we all need our scripts to be as tight as possible.

But when you tell the listener only the details they really need to know, you can sometimes leave them with nothing to latch onto. Nothing to remember.

Keep it quick. Don't waste a lot of time. But take a few seconds for that little detail that shows the listener who this person is.

I'm going back to the brilliant Phoebe Petrovic and Open and Shut for this. When we were working on the first episode of that series, we played a rough cut for a group of smart, engaged listeners at Wisconsin Public Radio.

And to a person, they all mentioned this as one of their favorite moments.
ABBE SMITH: Well, that's a really interesting case. The whole context of it. (pause) Um, I'm sorry. I got a barking dog. Can I -- hang on for one second -- put him away?

NARRATION: This is Abbe Smith.

PHOEBE PETROVIC: Can I ask what your dog's name is?

ABBE SMITH: He's a two year old Welsh Terrier named Habeas. That's what happens when you're a criminal defense lawyer, you name your dog Habeas.
This exchange is so quick! It literally takes just a few seconds. But it shows the listener exactly how important the law is to Abbe. It's important enough to influence the name of her dog!

Often when adding "expert" voices to our stories, we focus on credentials. And, sure, credentials are important.

The listener needs to know that our experts have knowledge. Gravitas. Maybe even star power.

But take just a few seconds to let the listener know who they are. As human beings.

Because humans connect to other humans. Not to resumes.
Be Bold

Look, nobody's gonna remember your story for the safe choices you made.

They're going to remember your story for the times you took a chance. Broke out of the box.

Maybe even ignored a rule or two?

Here's an example — details obscured because it's part of that big, investigative, multi-episode podcast that hasn't been released yet AND because there are objections to using the audio and I'm not quite sure yet if I'm gonna win the battle.

So, we interviewed a semi-famous guy. If you watched a certain TV show in the mid-2000s, you would absolutely know who he is.

Even if you weren't watching that particular TV show, you probably would have seen the promos for it. It was everywhere. To this day, this guy still sometimes pops up as a meme.

So when listeners listen to this episode, it's really, really important that they understand who this guy is. It is extremely relevant to this story.

And it's not just that this guy is semi-famous. It's that his fame is directly related to the subject matter of the entire podcast.

I want to use a clip that, if I'm being perfectly honest, might come across as boastful. Maybe even a little obnoxious.

I want to use this clip, not because I think this guy is a jerk. In truth, he was incredibly helpful and generous with his time.

I want to use it because it makes him memorable. It drives home the idea that this guy knows his stuff. He's not just AN expert. He's THE expert.

And yes, the clip might make him sound like a know-it-all.

But he really does KNOW IT ALL.

Is it a risk? Sure. Are there people who might think we're using that clip to make fun of him? Maybe.

But is it worth it?

In my opinion, yes. 100%.
Now that the calendar has turned over to 2023, it's time to get some Narrative Beat workshops on the books! If you have any requests about what techniques I cover in our next class -- or your preferred time of day for the live session -- please reply to this email and let me know.

As always, if you know anyone who likes to geek out over character development and other aspects of narrative storytelling, please encourage them to subscribe.

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