Heroes vs. Characters

Illustration of hero bust back to back to character bust

It's not enough to simply find a lone crusader who is working to change a broken system, and to profile him or her—the goal is, when possible, to look more deeply, at systems-level change rather than at singular individuals painted as heroes. That helped me to think about the challenge of reporting on our false narratives around gun violence—it shaped my decision, for instance, not just to profile one spectacular individual fighting to change the narrative around crime survivors, but instead, to profile two groups working side by side to reshape an entire field of survivor narratives and to build something much larger than the sum of their parts. We found our characters within programs that address the needs and worked backwards, identifying hurdles as well as issues/statistics related to the problem.

Sarah Stillman portrait
Sarah Stillman
The New Yorker

Systemic responses to entrenched social problems require more than a few extraordinary people; they require armies of ordinary people employing strategic and effective techniques. That’s why solutions journalism is more engaging when stories focus more rich, three-dimensional characters and compelling narrative tension, rather than relying on “heroes.”

How can you keep yourself from slipping into hero worship, even when you find yourself legitimately impressed by someone’s leadership or ingenuity? Here are some tips:

  • Like all good writing, show, don’t tell. Observe the architects of the solution and the “clients” in action and make it visually vivid for your reader. The more you can be on site, the better.
  • If you report what you observe without the use of editorializing adjectives like “amazing” or “terrific,” you can let the reader draw their own conclusions about the characters’ qualities.
  • Don’t forget the value of revealing characters’ challenges. This isn’t to shame or condemn them, but to make them real. Perhaps the leader of an organizationis a fantastic visionary, but a dysfunctional manager. Or perhaps he struggles to achieve scale because he is unwilling to let go of control. We would argue that it’s actually a more helpful act to report on someone honestly than to flatten them into a flawless hero.
  • Behind every story about a powerful changemaker, there is a hidden privilege (an aunt’s big start-up investment, for example), a heartbreaking fallout with a collaborator, or an abysmal failure. Don’t dramatize for the sake of it, but also don’t shy away from dark moments that can be instructive.
  • Look for the unlikely characters. In fact, many times, the so-called recipient can be the catalyst for a far more interesting narrative than the social entrepreneur. Or consider people within the organization, but those without positional leadership. Many times great characters are overlooked because they don’t have CEO or Executive Director next to their names. Geoff Dembicki, a sustainability reporter, gives an example: “I’ve found that for certain beats — like climate change, for instance — reporting tends to focus on the same archetypes over and over: the underdog environmentalist, the wily lobbyist, the ignorant conservative etc. Sometimes the most engaging aspect of a solutions story is the new archetype it reveals. I got lots of positive feedback on my profile of a libertarian solar panel installer in Hawaii because it challenged people’s conceptions of who can, or should be, interested in the environment. The very fact that an unexpected archetype now exists in people’s imaginations opens up new possibilities for narrative/debate.”