Revealing character

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 20, 2008
Filed in Business storytelling

Recently we’ve been helping people find stories from their life that help give others an insight into the type of person they are. Annette Simmons calls these stories, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ stories. They are most useful when you meet people for the first time because the two questions they’re likely yo have in their mind are, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Why are you here?’ Without answering these two questions it’s unlikely they will take in much else of what you say.

The ‘Who am I?’ story reveals character whereas ‘Why am I here?’ reveals motivation. I was flicking through Robert McKee’s book, Story, and noticed a section on the difference between character and characterisation and I wanted to share this scenario McKee paints for us that graphically depicts how character is revealed.

Consider this scene: Two cars motor down a high way. 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, sole support of her family. Alongside her is a glistening new Porsche driven by a brilliant and wealthy neurosurgeon. Two people who have utterly different backgrounds, beliefs, personalities, languages—in every way imaginable their characterizations are the opposite of each other.

Suddenly, in front of them, a school bus full of children flips out of control, smashes against an underpass, bursting into flames, trapping the children inside. Now, under this terrible pressure, we’ll find out who these people really are.

Who chooses to stop? Who chooses to drive by? Each has rationalizations for driving by. The domestic worries that if she gets caught up in this, the police might question her, find out she’s an illegal, throw her back across the border, and her family will starve. The surgeon fears that if he’s injured and his hands burned, hands that perform miraculous microsurgeries, the lives of thousands of future patients will be lost. But let’s say they both hit the brakes and stop.

This choice gives us a clue to character, but who is stopping to help, and who’s become too hysterical to drive any farther? Let’s say they both choose to help. This tells us more. But who chooses to help by calling for an ambulance and waiting? Who chooses to help by dashing into the burning bus? Let’s say they both rush for the bus—a choice that reveals character in even greater depth.

Now doctor and housekeeper smash windows, crawl inside the blazing bus, grab screaming children, and push them to safety. But their choices aren’t over. Soon the flames surge into a blistering inferno, skin peels from their faces. They can’t take another breath without searing their lungs. In the midst of this 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 a white kid 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? How does she make Sophie’s choice?

I would never wish this level of drama upon anyone in real life—remember, McKee is advising screenwriters— but it demonstrates that character is revealed under pressure. It’s probably one of the reasons we intuitively watch our leaders when a crises occurs to see what they do because their actions reflect under pressure their character.

When looking for ‘Who am I?’ stories you will need to seek out those times when you were under the pump, or it didn’t go the way you expected. What did you do? Alternatively find stories of when others were under pressure and you admired how they acted.

I’m in the process of writing a new anecdote for the back of my business card. I want it to be a ‘Who am I?’ story. It’s far less dramatic than the burning bus scenario but I would like you opinion. What do you think? What character/s are revealed in this story?

In 1996 I helped the Australian Geological Survey Organisation document their scientific datasets. We put a heap of effort into designing the database and then went to the scientists and asked them to describe their datasets. They scoffed at the suggestion, reminding us that they had a mountain of data and little motivation to do anything with it apart from publishing papers. We were stumped until we cottoned on to the fact that their culture was defined by the imperative to publish or perish. We revisited our project design and created the idea of a published dataset. It was linked to their performance management systems but most importantly each published dataset could be officially cited in their personal bibliographies. We went back to the scientists and asked whether they would like to publish their datasets and there was an instant line up.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Gloria Fox says:

    Shawn, I very much apprciated the story that differentiated character/characterizations……in reference to your business card, with your story you created a win/win situation and that takes creativity and know-how. I think that is character revealing.

  2. Shawn, I think your business card anecdote stands alone very well but, preceeded by the life or death story, it seems low key and not character revealing. I’m sure it was important at the time but, for me, the urgency/importance does not come through the story.

  3. Serena Joyner says:

    You re-imagined the mountain of effort into a mountain of potential publications. It reveals lateral thinking and a willingness to see things from the clients’ and users’ perspective.

    It is a very good story Shawn but could it be a little long for a business card…? Maybe it says everything whereas it could say less but peak the reader’s curiosity and prompt a discussion?

    Is there a joke in there about geologists scaling mountains of data? Or “Bringing the mountain to …..” ? Or “How many scientists does it take to …….”? I know a joke is best delivered in the flesh but I’d be tempted…. 😉

  4. Jim says:

    I like this post very much, or just the questions being asked to elicit a story: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I here for?’ Or, what do our stories say about our character and motivation? The story cited by McKee sounds like an unresolved contextualized version of ‘The Good Samaritan’, which is also a story of character – ‘Who was the neighbor?’

  5. Gloria Fox says:

    Shawn, just in reference to character, something that does not get discussed musch are the intrapsychic dynamics that create character. Usually what you would see is a person who feels fulfillment in life, who feels he/she is nurtured and has something to give back. People like this have no trouble seeing the opportunity to stop and give time, money, (sometimes money they don’t really have), or their skill, in essence, “The good Samaritan”. Reminds me of a woman I know who told me a story about her daughter. Daughter was driving down the road and saw a deer get hit, the person who hit the deer kept going, but she stopped, went over to the deer and sit down with it and put its head on her lap as it died. She told her Mother that she didn’t want it to die alone.

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