Protagonists Should Be Like Your Learners

When you write a story for learning, you need a few essential elements: a protagonist (the main character), the protagonist’s goal, and the challenges the protagonist faces. The protagonist should be someone your learners identify with.

In workplace learning, that means the character has the same or a similar job as the learners. The learners should recognize the problems the character is dealing with and ideally share the protagonist’s goal. Learners should see a bit of themselves in the characters in your scenarios. That helps them picture themselves making the same kinds of decisions.

When learners identify with your protagonist, they care about what happens to the character. They may be emotionally invested in seeing the protagonist succeed, especially in complex scenarios.

Joan is designing her first branching scenario and needs to create a protagonist.

Example protagonist selection

To start, let’s review an example. Joan is an instructional designer working on a branching scenario. She has designed and developed many courses in the past, but this is the first time she has used a nonlinear format. She’s feeling a little nervous about getting it right. She’s creating training for front-line managers on how to handle requests for reasonable accommodations for disabilities. Which character should Joan use as the protagonist for her scenario?

  1. Mark, a technical writer with mobility issues who requires assistive technology
  2. Luisa, the VP of HR and an expert in accessibility issues
  3. Cindy, a manager with a team of 8 direct reports

Feedback on your choice

  • Mark would be a good choice for protagonist if this course were for employees to learn how to request reasonable accommodation.
  • Someone like Luisa might be your SME for a course, but she has much more expertise than Joan’s learners.
  • Cindy is a manager, which puts her in the same role as the learners.

Joan will be able to put Cindy into situations similar to those managers might encounter. That will allow the learners to practice making the kinds of decisions they need to make in their jobs.

Other protagonist characteristics

Example compliance training with options to look up information

Joan might also be able to give Cindy other characteristics that make her similar to her learners. As part of her needs analysis, Joan interviewed two managers who had been through the process themselves. Both managers expressed reluctance to consult HR with questions about accommodations, even in situations where that was the best decision.

Joan decides to create an option in the branching scenario reflecting that. Cindy tries to handle the problem herself without HR, but she causes a costly misstep. Joan builds the scenario with the possibility of checking with HR before each decision. She rewards that action with points in the final score.

(This example scenario is also used in Motivating Learners to Look Up Compliance Policies Themselves.)

Stepping back

Joan, the instructional designer

At the risk of getting a little too meta, think back to Joan, the instructional designer. When you read that she was nervous about creating her first branching scenario, did that strike a chord with you? If you’re thinking about how to create your first scenario, that probably resonates.

Even if you have created many branching scenarios before, you might still remember that feeling of being unsure. If you’re an ID, you can probably envision yourself in this scenario. That gives you a connection to the character and helps engage you. You as the reader want to pick the right protagonist in the example so Joan’s course will be successful.

Characters in Cultural Context

Keep the culture of the workplace in mind as well. Your protagonist and other characters should reflect the organizational culture. In his report Using Culturally, Linguistically, and Situationally Relevant Scenarios, Dr. Will Thalheimer recommends:

In simulating workplace cues, consider the range of cues that your learners will pay attention to in their work, including background objects, people and their facial expressions, language cues, and cultural referents…

Utilize culturally-appropriate objects, backgrounds, actors, and narrators in creating your scenarios. Consider not just ethnicity, but the many aspects of culture, including such things as socio-economics, education, international experience, immersion in popular culture, age, etc.

Will’s recommendations from his research are also summarized on his blog.

How have you made your protagonists similar to your learners? Have you ever seen an attempt at scenario-based learning that was unsuccessful because the learners couldn’t identify with the main character?
Image credits

Originally published 4/19/2016. Last updated 1/9/2020.

7 thoughts on “Protagonists Should Be Like Your Learners”

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    1. Thanks! I always think it’s helpful when talking about scenario-based learning to have some example stories. A frame story (where one story is embedded in another story) is a bit of a complex structure for a blog post, but I think it works here.

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