Storytelling tips | How to handle characters too complex for telling

By Limor Shiponi

David Ben-Gurion is such a character. The scope of his actions, time and place in history, the background story, his personality and the mixed feelings people have about him, all make his character just too complex to tell a single story about. The only people who sound authentic talking about him are people who knew him first hand; people who worked with him or those who were his rivals. But they are decreasing quickly and pretty soon we’ll get to the point those people too will become legends.

The symptom – pathos

It takes a couple of minutes listening to a tour-guide, a teacher, a storyteller speaking about such a character to figure out the problem – pathos, which is the outcome of trying to capture and deliver something too complex turned national and monumental – if complex was not enough. The writings about Ben-Gurion can be measured in tons, not to mention documentaries, photographs, archives, museums, media. Yet telling a single story or just a couple? That’s really difficult and the more so if you are an 8th grade student.

The problem – how can I relate to such a character?

Twice a year, for several years now, I meet a group of 8th graders at the Ben-Gurion House in Tel-Aviv. The students are involved in a heritage site ‘adoption’ project led by SPIHS. There are adopted sites all over the country, some of them pretty small and local with interesting stories and anecdotes to tell; being involved in the Ben-Gurion House project, is something else.

The students go through various activities throughout the year and at a certain point they need to prepare a guided tour for students in the 5th grade from their own school… sooo embarrassing. That’s what they feel and that’s where I meet them.

The solution – find your reflection

Ben-Gurion family. Source – wikimedia

We meet in a small building where all the walls – from top to bottom – are covered with large photographs featuring Ben-Gurion at different events and times in his life. Some have a ‘national’ feeling to them, some are pretty personal. I ask the students to walk around and select a photo that resonates with them for ANY reason. Then they need to come back and tell us the reason – out-loud. Some of them start the voyage by saying “because he looks funny” which is ok and should never be cancelled out as an answer. After we get pass the ‘funny’ first-round answers I ask them to look again at the picture and tell me about the underlying reason of their specific choice for ‘funny’.

Picking a picture in an intermediary act; the next part is meeting Ben-Gurion through guided imagination. Planted in their chairs, I ask them to use their imagination and leave the building, walk into the street and look around, take a walk. Somewhere along that ‘walk’ they will ‘spot-out’ Ben-Gurion sitting on a bench. They will approach him, introduce themselves, ask for permission to take a few moments of his time and have conversation, ask questions if they want to. Then they will come back to the room we are in, sit in their chair and write down the answer to the question “what qualities did you find in that person? how is he?”¬†Writing down the answer serves as a reminder-note for them to use later on. In class, they need to tell us out-loud what they think – every single one of them.

Everything they say is a reflection of them. Sometime it is spelled out so accurately the class goes “but you are like that too!” sometimes I need to mediate, translate a feature into several possibilities for them to point out the connection. In any case, it’s always very close and for them – quite often stunning.

How is this useful?

There are many ways to approach telling stories about Ben-Gurion or any other complex character. The best way they can take, is looking for stories that represent those facets in his personality they share. Feeling you can ‘understand’ Ben-Gurion whether you agree with him or not is a powerful WIIFM.

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