How to Build Strong Characters by Developing This One Thing

It's something that we all may struggle with from time to time: How to build strong characters.

How do we craft the most amazing character who will connect the strongest with our audience? How do we ensure that the real people we feature in our stories are the strongest they could possibly be?

Let's examine exactly how to do that, but first, let's start with a story.

How to Build Strong Characters by Developing This One Thing

A good friend on our team, Sheila, used to hate cats. Absolutely loathe them. She thought they were nothing but a bad attitude with sharp claws, and that they’d scratch her eyes out as soon as they’d look at her.

But then one day, she was walking her regular route to the grocery store when she passed a weird-looking cat—a fluffy, calico-colored Persian with a squished, grumpy looking face. One of those cats that you can’t decide whether it’s ugly or cute.


The cat lay very still, smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk, watching the world go by. It was right in the flow of foot traffic and didn’t move even when a gigantic Great Dane stepped over it.

Sheila didn’t think much of the cat until she walked the same route the next day and the day after that, and the little cat was still right there on that same square of sidewalk, her fluffy coat becoming more bedraggled by the day. She saw someone had put out food for it, and that's when Sheila became officially concerned.

She began to visit it every day. And after two weeks, she couldn’t take it anymore. She had to do something. Summer was turning into a rainy autumn, and it broke her heart to think of it being stuck outside in the elements.

She inquired at the neighbors’ houses—no one knew who the cat belonged to. She scoped out Craigslist for “Lost Cat” announcements—nothing. She borrowed a cat carrier and took the cat to a vet, but it didn’t have a microchip.

The cat was all alone.

So...Sheila had herself a cat.

That first night together, Sheila slept with the covers pulled up over her head because she was afraid that the cat would claw her eyes out. But after that—and much to her own shock—she became completely enthralled by this little creature. She’d spend an hour combing her coat into a puffball. She’d sit on the floor and watch it eat because she thought its tongue was so cute, the way it lapped up its food.

Seeing the cat cozy in her house—in contrast to it sitting outside on the sidewalk—Sheila’s heart burst with warmth and she knew she’d made the right choice.

What Makes People Change Their Minds?

I share this story of Vanessa (the cat) because this transformation is exactly what we seek when we tell stories. We want to open people’s eyes to a new perspective, to compel them to think or feel differently, or to take some action. We want ourselves and others to be changed by the work that we do.

But why does that change happen? For Sheila, why was she drawn to that cat? What compelled her—someone who was afraid of and repelled by cats—to have a complete change of heart and take action?

These turnabouts hinge on our core beliefs.

Sheila has a core belief that creatures who can’t always help themselves need to be noticed and proactively helped. She picked up Vanessa not because of any features (”she’s fluffy!”) nor because of any perceived benefit (“she’ll keep the mice away”), but because the cat’s story spoke to her core, her why.

That why drives our decision-making—even when those decisions seem to fly in the face of logic.

Leveraging the Power of Why in Storytelling

You may be familiar with Simon Sinek’s famous TEDxTalk “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspired Action.” Sinek was inspired by his observations of some of the great innovators and change-makers of our time: the folks at Apple, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Wright brothers.

Now, you might not necessarily think to group those three together but Sinek recognized a pattern. They all “think, act, and communicate the same way. And it’s the complete opposite to everyone else.”

What do the greats do differently? They start with why.

Sinek codified this communication into what he calls “the golden circle”:


The “what” and the “how” are usually evident, as they are in this case. None of these will surprise you:

  • Apple designs and sells computers.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. compelled huge numbers of people to use peaceful methods in the fight for civil rights.
  • The Wright brothers experimented with manned flight and achieved liftoff.

But these—the whats and hows—are not nearly as memorable or moving as the whys behind them. Because, as Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

For each of these game-changers, there is a core belief at the center of their operating:

  • Apple believes in beauty and simplicity; their clean, intentional designs and intuitive user experience speak to their customers’ desire for beauty and ease in a chaotic, messy world.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. believed that we could not have a just world until the laws of man matched the higher laws of God.
  • The Wright brothers believed that (as Sinek puts it) “if they could figure out this flying machine, it’ll change the course of the world.”

Now these—the whys—are truly motivational. These are what call people to action. Why is this the case? Because they resonate deeply in our core, in our belief system, beyond rational thought or even language.

In his talk, Sinek gives a useful overview of the brain. The human brain has evolved gradually, and the “newest” part, the neocortex, is engaged in the kind of rational thought that lets us process complicated information—such as the features and benefits of a product or philosophy.

But it’s the limbic system—the oldest territory in the brain—that drives us emotionally. What we refer to as intuition, a gut response, or “following our heart” is actually the limbic system in action. When it comes to making decisions, the limbic brain is the first on the scene. It’s not a verbal system, and it doesn’t make a list of pros and cons. Instead, it’s the part of us that shouts “YES!” when something resonates and gives a resounding “NO!” when it doesn’t.


We like to think we’re in charge of our decision-making, but, to some extent, we’re not. That’s why the why compels us—it resonates deeply even though we may not be able to logically explain it.

Okay, the Why Is HUGE! So, How Does this Make our Storytelling Stronger?

Within our stories we have People (one of the 4 Pillars of story). And we want our audience to really connect with these people (well, most of the characters in our story that is). The more our audience connects with the characters in the story, the more they’ll want to go on the journey and stick around until the ending. And importantly, the more the audience connects with the character, the more they’ll be emotionally moved by the story.

And so for us, as the storyteller, if we want to develop irresistible characters then we need to look at building out each one's why–or what we call Complexity.

A strong character needs Complexity–she needs to be three-dimensional. A strong character needs to be somebody the audience cares about and can believe in. Much of this depth that we create in our characters comes from developing the why.

This is especially true when it comes to our main character, what we call the Heart of the story. We refer to the main character as the Heart because he or she is the emotional core of the story.

Building out the Heart’s why within your story is immensely valuable. This is key to how to build strong characters.

Simon Sinek’s talk showed us the power in knowing our why. And for us, as storytellers, we must first understand the why behind our characters so that we may then communicate that Complexity to our audience.

Let’s take a look at an excerpt from our documentary #standwithme in which viewers are introduced to humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine. Sure her images are gorgeous, but it’s learning about her why that really deepens the audience’s connection to her.

Okay, it’s certainly easy to see in the above video how much more we, as an audience, connect to Lisa. It’s because we learn about her why. But how do we, as storytellers, do that?

How to Develop the Why of the Characters in Your Story

Let’s take a look at three different filmmaking realms—documentary, commercial, and weddings—and examine how to bring out a character’s Complexity.

In the documentary space, make sure to understand the motivation behind the characters’ actions.

Documentary films often center around causes, ideas, and people that are very important. Because of this we often let purpose take over and lead the film. We often lead with purpose rather than develop a character’s depth.

When that depth is missing, it makes an emotional connection with the audience much more difficult.

See the main characters in your documentary as more than just purveyors of information. Take the time to give them depth.

It may sound obvious, but very early on as you’re developing the story, get in the habit of asking people, Why? Ask them why they chose to start the nonprofit, why their ideas are important, or why it matters to them.

In the commercial space, go beyond the product or service. Give your audience someone to believe in.

Commercial work all too often focuses on the features of a product as way to sell something. If we’re making a film for a carrot juicer, as an example, we all too often focus on how cheap it is, how many carrots it can juice per minute, how durable it might be, and so on. Now, if you’re actively looking for a carrot juicer and you come across a list of features it may help persuade you to purchase one brand over another.

If you want to reach an audience beyond those searching for that particular product or service—and if you want to connect with people on an emotional level—then it’s time to use a story. And a story about a product or service starts with the people behind it. These people have motivations, a deeper reason why they’re doing what they’re doing, and it’s a huge storytelling opportunity to share that with the audience.

So as you’re getting started with your commercial project, make sure to ask everybody you can why they do this and why this widget was needed in the first place.

As a wedding filmmaker, create a much stronger emotional connection with your audience by developing the depth—the Complexity of the bride and groom.

It’s a super common mistake to think that we need to cover the entire wedding day in order to tell a strong story. The wedding is simply a backdrop, the story is about the people. And so it’s critical that we get to know the people in our story, the couple who hired us, well before we show up.

Take the time to ask them why they chose each other, why they are getting married in this location, why they are getting married now, and the why behind any of the other details that seem important to them.

More than just understanding the why of our characters, we then need to be able communicate it to our audience.

Understanding a character’s why is a hugely valuable step alone. It connects you and your team to the story you’re telling, and it brings you much closer to those in your film.

But the next step is even more powerful.

We also have a responsibility to share this why with our audience. This puts our characters’ depth on display, creating a much deeper emotional connection for the audience. So as you learn the why of those in your film, the next step is to look at where you might be able to find that in the story.

The obvious way to capture a character’s why is to simply interview him and ask about it. That certainly works and is a solid place to start. But in some cases we won’t have interviews. Moreover, we can create a much more believable why if we can show this why—versus just telling.

Of the 4 Pillars of story—People, Place, Purpose, and Plot—this is where the Place pillar comes in.

Learn a Character’s Why, then Ask Where to Find It.

For example, we did a commercial piece for iAuditor, a leading safety app. We’ve travelled all over, from Canada to Australia, to tell stories of those who use the app.

One of these stories was of Goldcorp, the largest gold mining company in the world. Our goal was to use story to create a case study of one company that had benefited from another’s widget.

We had chosen Andrew, the safety director, to be the Heart of the story.


We could have focused solely on how easy the app is, how much time it saves him, and all the other features that it offers. But we already know that a story converts higher than any facts, features, and statistics

To go deeper, we really explored the why behind his emphasis on safety, and for Andrew that came down to making sure he could return to his family at the end of the work day.

Check out the film for iAuditor and look at how Andrew’s Complexity creates much more depth to his character and, in the end, a much deeper connection to the app itself, iAuditor.

More than just sharing an interview in which he shares his why, we also show it to you. We bring you into Andrew’s home, as he spends time with his son. And we share the the front page of his safety manual that has a picture of his son. This way, viewers really feel his why and gain a much deeper connection.

There you have it.

Develop your characters’ Complexity and deepen the audience's connection by sharing their whys. This is how to build strong characters. Get to know their whys before you start, and look for ways to show their whys throughout the story.

Download this free Cheat Sheet to help you bring greater depth to your #story’s characters.

As for your films, have you ever had a time when you showed a character’s Complexity and it made the story stronger?

If so, share with us below. More examples help other folks get a sense of the possibilities, as well as what to look for.