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Storying the Past: Part 2 - Character-Focused Storying

Bringing History to Life with Storytelling

This blog is the second of a series of five on the topic of storytelling and history. While I am not a historian, I have had a life-long love of history and have been privileged to work as a storytelling consultant to national museums. Writing this blog provides me with a way of working out and articulating my method when telling historical stories.

This series of blogs is structured as follows:

Part 1 - Storytelling

Why Stories Stick: Narration and the Organisation of Ideas

Structuring Story

Part 2 - Character-Focused Storying (using the example of the story of the Suffragettes)

Part 3 - Event-Focused Storying (using the example of the Battle of Hastings)

Part 4 - Artefact-Focused Storying (using the example of a wooden Spindle)

Memorising and Telling

Part 5 - History and The Tales That We Tell Summary

If you are interested in more of my thinking on using storytelling to teach history, I have an article, 'Storytelling the Past' in the Historical Association's magazine Primary History (Issue 86, Autumn 2020) CLICK HERE - please note that this article is behind a 'pay wall'.

Character-Focused Storying - (exemplified through the stories of the Suffragettes)

The first characteristic of a story schema (as identified above) is that a story follows ‘a principal character (or group of characters) through a series of events, as they attempt to overcome obstacles that lie between them and their goal(s).’ Stories that concentrate on a particular figure are a common feature of learning history, whether it is through reading a biographical note in a history text, watching Horrible Histories, or listening to an interpreter at an historic site. Rarely are these stories presented in their full complexity, and (indeed) they are often fragmentary, but the power of story means that the contextualisation of facts in the story of a person (or persons) means that information is more readily understood, and more easily recalled. Because of this, each of the approaches taken here will lead back to character at some point, even if the story is pedagogically focussed on an event or an artefact. This character-focussed storying sequence is not only self-contained, but can used to support the further two sequences outlined in Parts 3 and 4 of this series of blogs.

Figure 1: Character-Focused Storying

In character-focussed storying (see Figure 1), the first task is to choose a character whose story will best exemplify a particular moment, movement or historical theme. I have suggested four ways in which the position of narrative protagonist can be filled, which I will exemplify with references to the movement for omen's suffrage.

The story can be focussed on the:

· Individual (specific) - specific historical figures, such as Emmeline Pankhurst;

· Individual (representative) – a figure, such as ‘A Suffragette’ or ‘A Policeman’, who can be used to embody a common experience. This could extend to an individual to represent a very broad category, such as ‘a middle-class woman of this period’ etc. In the case of the suffragettes, of course, there are many individual named women whose stories could be used rather than such a generalised case.

· Group (specific) – a group which has a specific identity; for example, the founder members of the Women's Social and Political Union – a significant number of whom could be identified.

· Group (representative) - a generalised, abstract, group (rather than an identifiable group of individuals). An example of a ‘representative group’ in this sense would be the movement for women's suffrage.

Moving down the storying sequence, having chosen the character(s) whose story we will tell, the next stage is to identify their goals and the reasons behind them. A character's goal(s) will always be related to the problem in a narrative as this is what creates tension, which in turn holds the audience’s interest. The primary problem in the story of the suffragettes is that women didn’t have the vote, and the goal for the main character(s) is, therefore, related to this.

The story of a representative group will be more focused on generalised desires than that of a specific group of people; similarly, the motivations for a representative individual can be drawn from a range of examples to build the representation, while the story of a specific individual needs to be related to records of their lives. So, whilst the representative character of ‘The Suffragette’ may be driven by her desire for women’s suffrage, the story of Emmeline Pankhurst would perhaps also include a focus on her personal journey and wider political involvement.

Having identified the character and their goal, we are now concerned with how the character tries to overcome the obstruction(s) to their goal(s). Taking the representative character of A Suffragette, we could tell a story of the political and social struggles against the authorities, and her arrest and imprisonment; tension is created by narrating how she overcomes these problems with courage and tenacity – qualities which means that she is, ultimately triumphant.

The storying sequence now leads to the completion of the simple story structure (see Part 1 Bringing History to Life with Storytelling). Staying with the insights we have already about the representative individual of The Suffragette, we could complete some sections in the structure:

· Introduction: in the UK, in the early 20th Century, women had no voting rights

· Problem: The Suffragette sees the injustice of this situation, but the attempts of women to engage with the establishment have not yielded a solution.

· Rising action: The Suffragette engages in a series of protests where she comes up against the police (and a non-sympathetic public)

· Climax: ----

· Falling action: -----

· Resolution: -----

· Ending: the ending could be a summarising statement about how protests were suspended during World War 1, and that the social changes brought about by the war made women’s suffrage inevitable.

You will note that the sections Climax – Falling Action – Resolution have been left blank. This is where we have to choose those events which best demonstrate the aspect of the character that we wish to highlight. In the case of The Suffragette, I may choose to make her imprisonment the climax of the story, with falling action being her release. The resolution could be then be women gaining the right to vote, and the ending could summarise how The Suffragette’s preparedness to suffer for her cause paved the way for universal suffrage.

The statement above, that 'we have to choose those events which best demonstrate the aspect of the character that we wish to highlight' is perhaps ringing alarm bells about how the subjectivity of this process and an objective record of events as they occurred. The tension between storytelling and factual historical accounts has already been alluded to in the first part of this blog series, and I will explore it in more detail the final part 'History and The Tales That We Tell'. In the next part, I will use the Battle of The Hastings to unpick how we can build a narrative around a specific historical event.


[1] ‘function’ is used here to refer to the relationship between an element of the story (such as an event or artefact) and the role they play in the story. Hence the Battle of Hastings can function as the climax of the story, or plate armour could be seen as functioning as a problem to an attacker.


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