Building Characters

Author: DTM Vijayalakshmi.S | Admin Manager, District 120

The real story is not the plot, but how the characters unfold by itVanna Bonta

Characters are the most important elements in the story. While plot is pivotal, setting is fundamental, point of view is necessary, and theme is required, no story element ranks above character.

Good stories live …Great stories last a lifetime because of the characters those stories had.

Think of your favourite story or speech. Could you recall the character that impacted you the most? I am sure it’s the name, the character sketch, the physical description and much more that added flavor to make it your favorite. Character design like story design needs a hook to grab the attention of the audience.

Here are some of the examples I have heard, seen, and felt in championship speeches that built characters to enhance the story to a victory.

The first and foremost step in building a character is to give a name to that character. Most of the speeches in toastmasters are related to personal life experience. If you are the speaker, then give names to the other characters in the story. These names could reveal something about the character or be something bold that it instantly sticks to the minds of the audience. “Butchkoo” was the name of the friend in a humorous speech and every time the speaker said “Butchkoo” it instilled a laughter from the audience. 2020 world champion Mike Carr’s speech title “The Librarian & Mrs. Montgomery” tells us there are two characters in that story but doesn’t reveal much about them. It increased the curiosity to know more about these characters who became the speech title. The character sketches were later revealed in the speech that tied the title to the names for an impactful story.

Painting a picture in the minds of the audience about the character plays a vital role in the success of the story’s impact. Through vivid descriptions we can define the personality, motivation, and depth of the character. To create believable characters, we need to create a personality that everyone could relate to. For example, in 2014 world championship winning speech of Dhananjaya we see him saying “Raise your hand if you have an emotional mother, put them all together, you get my mom.” “Raise your hand if you have a cool dad, put them all together you get my dad”. Here Dhananjaya took a simple and effective way to place the characters in the minds of the audience by letting them imagine their own Mom and Dad and how emotional Moms are while Dads are always cool.

We do not need a perfect character. Surprisingly, characters with strengths and weaknesses make the story more believable. For example, in the winning speech of 2018 world champion Ramona, she builds a character (herself) who has dropped out of college 4 times, a marriage that lasted for 8 months and how she lost at the district contest finals. She was able to bring out her true nature exhibiting vulnerability and failure. The later part of the speech successfully portrays her victories one after the other in all the earlier failed attempts. A dynamic character like Ramona, in this case, is altered by the conflict she faced. Allowing the character to have flaws and make mistakes connects to the audience better.

It’s not always about the main character! By creating secondary characters, we can illuminate the main character. For example, in 2003 world championship speech of Jim Key, he builds the character of a remarkable teenaged girl named Nicole. She was a person with disability. Despite her challenge she performed in front of three thousand people using sign language that the speaker just didn’t see, but felt deep inside, it’s never too late to follow our dreams. It takes a powerful secondary character like Nicole to deep root the foundation phrase of the speech “It’s never too late” in the minds of the audience. Building such secondary characters needs time and effort to make the speech more memorable.

Using inanimate objects as characters can add a powerful and interesting element to your story. Quoting 2014 champion Dhananjaya again, the way the rose was used at the beginning of the speech as he peels of every petal and throws in a trash can whilst later in the speech, he picks out a fresh rose from the trashcan figuratively representing his transformation from the start to end. A dirty teddy bear, a punching doll and an apple are few other objects personified in the district finals I witnessed that elevated the speech to the next level. These objects no longer remained as props but as a character by itself uplifting the story.

For a story to win, the characters need to STEAL the show through their Speech, Thought, Effect, Action and Looks.

Characters breathe life into our stories and drive our stories forward. They are the most vital thing to get right while writing our speeches but, of course, it’s easier said than done!

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