Choosing Unconventional Main Characters

  Léelo en Español

An illustration of a person shining a white spotlight against a blue background.


If a story is a portal into a new world, then it’s through the characters’ eyes that the audience beholds the unfamiliar universe. Characters can drive drama and shape the trajectory of a narrative, providing readers a sense of companionship as the plot unfolds. They have the power to make us fall hopelessly in love, like the vivacious titular character in the Anne of Green Gables classics, or rally the audience against them, like Meredith Blake, the gold-digging stepmom-to-be in The Parent Trap.

In science journalism, writers often center their stories on the researchers who make a discovery, or the communities directly affected by a new finding or phenomenon, to show real-world relevance. But considering alternative central characters can provide a fresh way to tell your story. Unusual main characters put a new spin on existing coverage by sending readers down surprising paths, taking a story to new depths, and drawing attention to neglected voices. A powerful tool in the science writer’s kit, the unconventional character can make a storyline unforgettable.

Choosing which character should serve as the ambassador of your reporting may seem daunting. But it can also feel like one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure novels, where the path you take shapes the plot, inviting you to flex your creativity and storytelling skills. Here are a few journeys to consider taking, drawing inspiration from stories that star unconventional characters.


The Sidekick

In some stories, journalists may choose to bring a supporting character to center stage. This character can revamp the all-too-familiar plots of a hero’s journey or a leader’s dilemma, because side characters’ plotlines aren’t always as predictable. Ancillary characters, such as a scrappy sidekick, can also be more relatable to the reader.

When a story has numerous twists and turns, on top of a hefty amount of background, a character who serves as a guide can keep readers on track and help fully immerse them in the story.

Independent journalist McKenzie Funk chose to employ a sidekick narrative in the climax of his 2014 New York Times Magazine feature, “The Wreck of the Kulluk,” about the failed attempt to rescue a Shell oil rig before it crashed on an Alaskan island. Funk reconstructs the incident from the perspective of an engineer named Craig Matthews, who was on one of the tugboats called in to help.

Amidst 30-foot swells, Matthews managed to snag the rig’s emergency towline and hitch it to his team’s boat. But worsening seas forced him to cut the connection, releasing the rig to smash into an unnamed shore. Matthews’s harrowing experience on the deck of a wildly pitching ship adds vivid detail and riveting shifts in the story’s pacing, enlivening it in exactly the right places.

Matthew’s auxiliary role is an advantage, Funk says, because he had no direct stake. He wasn’t the captain calling the shots or a Shell employee liable for damages. His role as just one of the cogs in the massive rescue operation makes him a more reliable storyteller, Funk says, a “narrator you can trust.”


The Guide

When a story has numerous twists and turns, on top of a hefty amount of background, a character who serves as a guide can keep readers on track and help fully immerse them in the story. This person may have the clearest vantage point on unfolding events and their meaning. Sometimes, a guide can even be the writer telling the story through their own journey.

In “The Final Five Percent,” for Longreads, independent journalist Tim Requarth uses his personal experience to lead the reader through an examination of the legal ethics surrounding theories on the biological basis of criminal tendencies. After Requarth’s brother sustains permanent brain damage in a motorcycle crash, he transforms into a cruel stranger who ends up assaulting a neighbor. A young Requarth studies neuroscience as a graduate student to try to understand how his brother’s condition tips him towards reckless and violent acts, and the extent to which his brother’s brain injury could be responsible for his behavior. Eventually, though, he grows disillusioned as he realizes the limits of science, and how it can be weaponized to discriminate against neurologically divergent people.

Requarth’s presence throughout the article enables him to retrace his steps alongside his readers, rather than lecturing them. A good guide, he explains, serves as the “person that, when you’re on a confusing journey through a dense wilderness, has a roadmap for you.”


Hidden Figures

Behind most scientific breakthroughs, there is usually an army of scientists. But the hierarchy within institutional science often means the principal investigator gets all the credit. As such, public perception is often that science is a lone-wolf enterprise. Featuring the voices of junior members of a team, such as student researchers, lab technicians, and overlooked or historically marginalized contributors, can help journalists correct this imbalance and find unique story angles.

To enrich their reporting, a science journalist might choose to center a researcher with a contrarian perspective.

In a 2016 story for Nature, science reporter Heidi Ledford puts the spotlight on the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who made valuable early contributions in the race to develop the gene-editing technology CRISPR. Her article, “The Unsung Heroes of CRISPR,” reveals how early-career researchers often remain obscure and highlights the hidden inequalities and skewed power dynamics within academia. Ledford writes that some of the first authors of the landmark CRISPR papers got their due only when their advisors intervened or insisted on sharing the limelight.

Junior researchers are experts in their own right and usually more familiar with the minutiae of the science, says Ledford, and they may have interesting anecdotes about their experiments or fieldwork. Over-reliance on bigwig researchers can also restrict the diversity of your source pool. “You’re going to end up with a lot of middle-aged white guys in your story,” she says. “You’ll find more diversity often lower in the ranks, at this stage in time—hopefully not in the future.”


The Contrarian

Science rarely progresses smoothly in a linear fashion. The same evidence can lead to different interpretations, and even the most widely accepted theories might garner opposition. To enrich their reporting, a science journalist might choose to center a researcher with a contrarian perspective. As long as these characters are working in good faith, their research can raise valid arguments that challenge existing dogma. The debate their work inspires, however heated, increases the rigor of science and advances knowledge. Featuring these staunch contrarians further humanizes scientific inquiry and injects stories with a dose of drama.

In “The Nastiest Feud in Science,” for The Atlantic, independent journalist Bianca Bosker profiles the researchers who contest the now-conventional wisdom that an asteroid impact 66 million years ago caused dinosaurs to go extinct. One of the loudest dissenters, Princeton University geologist Gerta Keller, thinks a prolonged period of intense volcanism is what did the dinosaurs in. By going against the grain, Keller has become a magnet for vitriol from the mainstream camp.

Bosker’s article is less about the truth of the dinosaurs’ demise than about the scientific community warring over what constitutes the truth. By chronicling Keller’s colorful career path and her squabbles with other scientists, Bosker gives readers a behind-the-scenes peek at the process of science and the extent to which debates can get messy. In Keller’s field, fights devolved into “accusations of slander, sabotage, threats, discrimination, spurious data, and attempts to torpedo careers,” Bosker writes. This insider view dispels the assumption that scientists are paragons of objectivity who look dispassionately at data. Instead, they can be flawed human beings whose passion for their work can lead them to extremes.

That said, journalists should think carefully about why they might feature a particular contrarian and provide readers with the right context about a scientific debate. Failing to do so might inadvertently promote voices peddling pseudoscience or lead to a false balance—giving equal weight to scientific information and unproven claims. “It’s important for journalists to understand what they’re dealing with,” Bosker says, and evaluate the validity of a researcher’s approach. “It’s a matter of being responsible.”


The Animal

Main characters don’t have to be people. And if the other option is a passive human observer, who wouldn’t opt to instead feature a charismatic animal who journeys far and wide, skirmishes with other clans, seduces mates, and topples dynasties? Making an animal the central character can add vivid detail and a certain poignancy to storytelling, when readers discover the richness of the animal’s hidden life. In choosing this path, though, writers must take care to maintain journalistic accuracy and avoid anthropomorphizing their nonhuman characters.

Some stories might lend themselves to making a body part the main character, enlivening topics that might otherwise be bogged down with complex biology or medical terminology.

A dashing female wolf named O-Six is the protagonist of author Nate Blakeslee’s retelling of the species’ reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park in his book American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. Using the detailed wolf-watching reports of ardent aficionados and a faithful park ranger, Blakeslee reconstructs the dramatic life of O-Six, one of the wolves who flourished generations after the first wolves were rewilded in 1995. The result reads like a lupine version of Game of Thrones, chronicling O-Six’s thrilling adventures until her eventual demise in 2012, when a local hunter shot her. The extensive information available in the reports gives Blakeslee the means to imbue O-Six and her brood with real depth and dimension, without falling into the trap of speculatively assigning motives or specific emotions to their actions.

Especially if a species is endangered, training the lens on the animal directly makes its plight more tangible, adding emotional weight to statistics about the creatures’ lives and deaths. “They’re not just numbers. They have stories of their own,” says Blakeslee. “If any one wolf’s life is this amazing story, then what gets lost every time a wolf is killed either by a hunter or a trapper or by a rancher protecting livestock?”


The Body Part

Some stories might lend themselves to making a body part the main character, enlivening topics that might otherwise be bogged down with complex biology or medical terminology. Through tone and language, a writer can give an anatomical object a sense of agency that propels the story forward.

Emily Willingham does just that in her Aeon essay “The Penis: A Life,” transforming what could be straightforward coverage of the evolutionary history of this perky member into a vibrant biography. Readers follow the penis’s journey, from its early forms through its diversification into the stunning variety found among today’s creatures.

Just as with any character, “there needs to be some inciting incident that sets them off on their journey,” Willingham says. For the penis, she argues, this moment comes when it first appears on the evolutionary scene to drastically revamp the process of bringing sperm and egg together. “Boom, here’s this character whose job is to overcome this problem. Then you go through the history of how that happened,” she says.

Throughout the piece, Willingham employs emotive and visual descriptions to give the penis an active role in its evolution and function. The act of copulation, for example, becomes a “genitalic handshake.” And penises take on minds of their own by developing “contours that get them around, or through, or over, or under whatever obstacles or competition they might encounter” during a mating frenzy. The overall approach fosters a sense of wonder and curiosity about an appendage that a large fraction of the population encounters every day.

Willingham’s lively personification of a taboo subject also adds a tongue-in-cheek quality that makes it impossible to read the article with a straight face. At the same time, she artfully conveys the penis’s dark side—like a lovable protagonist turning evil—when she describes how the size and shape of a human’s penis came to stand as a toxic symbol of manhood.


The Inanimate Object

Even everyday objects can be main characters that provide a different slant to a story. If a particular object, such as a diary or a rosary, comes up repeatedly during reporting, that’s a sign it might be significant enough to center in a storyline. Storytellers can use objects smartly to approach complex or sensitive topics in an accessible way, or to add a delightful dash of lightheartedness.

Another way to make an abstract or technical concept less intimidating to an audience is to make the idea itself a character.

In the podcast Everything Is Alive, creator and host Ian Chillag interviews inanimate objects, played by improv actors. Discussing homesickness with a lost baseball cap and insomnia with a pillow, Chillag creates something more than slapstick entertainment. Objects like these become metaphors, providing an approachable way to examine topics such as loneliness and religiosity. In the first episode, for example, Chillag discusses the concept of a soul and the afterlife with a can of Cola nearing its expiration and waiting to be consumed. Through the can, Chillag delves into humans’ natural trepidation around death and the ways many of us grapple with life’s purpose. “We use objects as a way to explore human beings,” Chillag says. “I never even really think of it as a show about objects.”

An object may make a compelling character especially if its presence makes a difference in the plot of a story, or if it plays a significant role in an event, Chillag says. “Do things happen differently in the course of the human beings’ [lives] in the story if this object is not there or they are not thinking about this object?” he asks.


The Idea

Another way to make an abstract or technical concept less intimidating to an audience is to make the idea itself a character. In this case, the difference between a topic and a character can be subtle. But if an idea’s history or development follows an arc, a writer can construct a narrative journey similar to the path a human character might take through a story. Mapping a complex concept onto a plot can also help break it into more understandable chunks that a writer can introduce at a manageable pace.

For Aeon, physics reporter Karmela Padavic-Callaghan takes on the fearsomely unintuitive mathematical construct of the imaginary number—the result of taking the square root of a negative number—by turning it into a character in “Imaginary Numbers Are Real.” Using a redemption narrative, Padavic-Callaghan shows how imaginary numbers started as a once-fringe idea and then gained widespread acceptance among the scientific community. Now, they are a core concept in the field of quantum mechanics.

Starring imaginary numbers as the main character, rather than relying on scientists’ quotes and anecdotes to drive the article forward, allows Padavic-Callaghan to use her writerly authority to discuss her topic head on. She even introduces side characters, such as negative and irrational numbers, casting a crew of numerical cousins to hammer home how bizarre imaginary numbers are by comparison. With creative choices like these, Padavic-Callaghan makes a topic that might otherwise seem esoteric read like an engaging and approachable story. “There’s a way to write the piece in a more conventional way,” she says, but “I think people remember more if they can latch onto a thread.”


Shi En Kim Michael L. Wong

Shi En Kim is a life sciences reporter at Chemical & Engineering News and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, National Geographic, Scientific American, Hakai MagazineScience News, and Smithsonian Magazine, where she was a AAAS Mass Media Fellow in 2021. She recently earned her PhD in molecular engineering from the University of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @goes_by_kim.

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