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Lead with sympathetic characters

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In Sum

Good actions tell a good story; good stories revolve around sympathetic characters.

Assembling a compelling cast of characters is a critical strategic consideration for any action designer. Actions tend to be strong on identifying and vilifying the antagonists of the narrative, but an audience will care much more about injustice if they can relate to the people who are being affected. Successful actions are often those that present strong protagonists and other sympathetic characters.

The role of the messenger who delivers the story of an action is key. Messengers embody the message by putting a human face on conflict and placing the action within a larger context. Those most impacted by the issue tend to make for more sympathetic and compelling messengers. For instance, if the action is about farm workers, it can be more effective to amplify the voices of a small group of farm workers who are taking action than to have a larger group of non-farm workers to speak up on their behalf. (Of course, solidarity actions certainly have their place: see CASE: Taco Bell boycott.)

Power holders understand the importance of deploying sympathetic characters. For instance, welfare cuts get presented as benefiting working mothers, or corporate tax cuts sold as job-creation tools to help the unemployed. Time and again, the powerful play one group of sympathetic characters off another, or argue with Orwellian duplicity that the victims of a policy will actually benefit from it.

In these cases, a campaign becomes a contest over who gets to speak for those suffering. With whom do we sympathize, and are those characters actually given space to speak for themselves? A showdown results between messengers jockeying to represent themselves as the authentic representatives of the impacted constituencies.

In recent years, we have seen several uprisings against repressive governments framed explicitly around sympathetic characters. In Myanmar, monks became the new face of the pro-democracy movement, replacing the students of the 1988 mobilizations as the primary messengers. Obviously, many factions of society supported the movement, but with the monks at the front of the marches it was clear that the pro-democracy movement spoke for the conscience of the nation. Similarly, in Pakistan lawyers became the face of the fight against government impunity. Who better to embody the message of a need to respect the rule of law than lawyers?

It’s important to ensure that the faces of the action are not just representative of the relevant impacted community, but also are easily recognizable to outsiders as key characters in the story. This can come down to the crude but important dynamics of costuming: a single religious leader wearing religious sacraments will communicate that people of faith are involved in the action better than twenty religious leaders wearing jeans and sweatshirts see PRINCIPLE: Don’t dress like a protester.

Potential Pitfalls

The dynamics of who gets to speak, how the characters are portrayed, and who is cast as the heroes, victims, and villains, are deeply entwined in the dynamics of power and privilege. Activists should take care not to play into narratives of victimization that plague marginalized communities. Navigating these dynamics skillfully and authentically is essential to successful actions and campaigns.


Doyle Canning was struck by a tear gas canister in the streets of Seattle in 1999, and has never been the same since. She is a creative strategist with a deep commitment to building broad-based movements for social justice and an ecological future. Doyle is a co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme). She delivers training, coaching, facilitation and framing to high-impact networks who are taking on greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, racist laws and polluting policies. Doyle is co-author of Re:Imagining Change with Patrick Reinsborough. She lives with her husband in Boston, where she enjoys practicing yoga, cooking, and making music.

Patrick Reinsborough is a strategist, organizer and creative provocateur with over twenty years of experience campaigning for peace, justice, indigenous rights and ecological sanity. Patrick has helped organize countless creative interventions, including mass direct actions that shut down the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999 and protested the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He is the author of numerous essays on social change theory and practice, including co-writing Re:Imagining Change (PM Press 2010). He is the co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme), a movement support organization which harnesses the power of narrative for fundamental social change. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay area.


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