Character is a versatile word.

It’s a noun (she is a character), a verb (characterize the situation for me), and something you can have or not have. It is both who you are and what you do.

If you lack it, you probably don’t know it. But those around you probably do.

It is a synonym for integrity.

Who am I to write about character? I am no ethicist, saint, or role model. I haven’t walked in any but my own shoes. But I do know that character is one thing we all determine for ourselves, that we all value it, that it is intimately tied to how and what we communicate, and that it is the crucible of many public conversations. Thinking about character is a way to think through complexity.


Words we focus on. The “words of the year” proclamations by since 2010 are: change, tergiversate, bluster, privacy, exposure, identity, xenophobia. Taken together, there is a crescendo of all things character-driven leading up to 2017’s loaded word: complicit. I can’t think of a word more defined by “character” (perhaps except for “honesty”).

People we talk about. In 2017, Time magazine’s Person of the Year was “Silence Breakers” (since 2010, the title was given to Mark Zuckerberg, “the protester”, President Obama, Pope Francis, Ebola Fighters, Angela Merkel, President Trump). The “Silence Breakers” are spurring a profound impact with #MeToo and  #TimesUp, hopefully igniting a new and lasting intolerance for harassment, sexism, unfairness, abuse, and misogyny.

Second-guessing our cherished technologies. The dominant media of our time is grappling with the malfeasance of fake news and challenges from within about the ethics and impact of their platforms. Sean Parker’s November indictment that Facebook knowingly exploits human vulnerability was scathing, and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya’s statement that the platform is “ripping society apart” was another much-reported critique. The company’s response is in itself a moment of character and self-reflection, with a massive shift coming to the newsfeed algorithm and a defensive reassertion of the company’s “responsibility to make sure services aren’t just fun…but also good for people’s well-being”.

In a similar vein, investors send a rebuke to Apple, urging the company to develop tools that will limit prolonged iPhone use, and to examine the impact of smartphones on mental health.

What causes outrage. Many have said that with the 45th U.S. President, we no longer have an accurate reading on what causes outrage. But we do reliably react, depending on the issue, at exploitation of the vulnerable by using aggressive tactics, profiteering unfairly, and harassment and the abuse of power. If you act without character and are caught, you run a high risk in the digital age of not only earning the wrath of those who have been wronged, but facing a mass movement of protest against your actions. Hubris catches up.

Activist companies and brands. There seems to be a rise in companies willing to take a public stand on a heated issue, and using that stand as part of their brand narrative in a bid to engage customers. Burger King is using the Whopper to show support for net neutrality. Patagonia, the “activist company,” lives by this everyday. Lyft has boldly supported the ACLU in controversial moments, flanking Uber. Companies that do this are likely motivated by leaders who have a political point of view, but they are also making a statement that they are willing to lose customers who disagree with their stance. It’s a calculated risk that this display of character – standing by what you stand for – is worth it.

The biggest issues and conversations are character-driven. But there is another dimension to character, beyond core personality traits.

Using character to think through complexity

Character is primarily a qualitative concept. But it is also a powerful way to work through complex situations – crisis, issues, or active conversations where choices have real impact on people (good and bad). I’ve been inspired, when grappling with hard challenges, by two ideas tied to character: Archetypes and Story Shapes.

Archetypes and story shapes

In The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell contended that across all cultures there is a pattern to human stories, and this pattern emerges most with recurring character archetypes, like:

  • The Hero (Imperator Furiosa, Luke Skywalker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
  • The Mentor (Morpheus, Yoda)
  • The Ally (Willow Rosenberg, Sam Gamgee)
  • The Villain (Darth Vader)

In the same territory, a prescient Kurt Vonnegut lectured that stories had basic arcs and shapes, driven by archetypal characters. This was proven to be true recently by the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont: they analyzed over 72, 000+ books, and found through language processing and topic analysis that there are six basic story shapes. Turns out Vonnegut and Campbell were right.

We project these patterns and character types on current events, stories in the news, and on the actions of public figures and organizations. By deliberately framing a challenge through the language of character and story, we can develop hypothesis and find at least a place to start, even if the topic has more shades of grey than black and white. We can find the milestone moments, use research to create a point of view about how characters are being cast (by the media, in social media, by employees, or others) and we can use this framing to propel a strategy forward. Using character and story arc metaphors, we can discover and debate the best actions to take to improve a situation, what an audience needs to hear, and how best to communicate.

The data on character

Back to the qualities of character: there is a return when organizations and leaders show that they have it, aside from just being a good human. In a 2015 study, CEOs with high marks for character, scored on a scale of four core traits (integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, compassion) had a higher “average return on assets” than counterparts who scored lower.

Unlike storytellers of past generations, we have the benefit of exploring millions of terabytes of data in order to find the arcs, reveal how public figures are being characterized, and even predict where a story arc might lead in the future. Character is and has always been a very subjective thing, but we have hit a time where it is uniquely more quantifiable and measurable.

Clarity in the complex

Standing by what you stand for is not a new idea (and it is a self-evident goal for most of us). Neither is using archetypes to reduce the complexity of a problem. But both notions feel uniquely important right now. We live in a time of highly polarized views played out minute by minute, questions of complicity, uniting against what is wrong, and constant debate about the character of our most authoritative leaders. It’s a time where demonstrating integrity matters, and standing silent by the wayside has consequences, no matter how challenging the issue.

Character is the thread of clear thinking in times of complexity.


Kevin McCann is a Partner at NATIONAL, where he focuses on strategy, story, all things digital, data, engagement, and advocacy.