What Challenges Do Your Characters Face?

Once upon a time, there was an instructional designer who created a branching scenario for training. Her client was excited about the approach, her SME was always available and helpful, and her technology worked perfectly the first time, every time. The learners loved it and were able to immediately apply their new skills to their jobs. The instructional designer won an award. Everyone lived happily ever after. The End.

Sounds like a great fantasy, right?

But how engaged were you with that story? Was it realistic? Could you identify with the character and her situation? Do you care what happens to her?

Honestly, that story makes me want to yawn. It’s just boring. Stories and scenarios for learning are more engaging when they show the characters facing challenges.

What challenges do your characters face? Man at the top of a tall staircase with blue sky above.

Think about any great movie or novel. The main character always faces obstacles. Harry Potter faces Voldemort , as well as the Dursleys, school, and other challenges. How he overcomes those challenges is what makes those stories compelling.

When we use stories for learning, the challenges your characters face should mimic the kinds of issues learners will face in their real workplace. You don’t need an evil villain in your story, but you do need obstacles to overcome.

Example of ID character challenges

Take the example of creating a branching scenario. You might hit a number of obstacles as an ID.

  • A client or manager who wants a traditional linear course rather than a branching scenario.
  • A SME who insists on a content-heavy course, isn’t available, or struggles to provide scenario examples
  • Technology that’s clunky or doesn’t work well for scenarios
  • Limited budget
  • Short timelines
  • Writer’s block or trouble coming up with realistic scenarios

Which challenges?

You might start by brainstorming challenges like the list above. You probably won’t include all the potential challenges in a single scenario since that would be too complex. Therefore, you’ll need to pick and choose the challenges that make the most sense.

  • Frequent Obstacles: What obstacles or challenges happen most often? What problems are your learners most likely to face?
  • Common Mistakes: What are the common mistakes people make? What are the typical misunderstandings?
  • Critical Challenges: Are there challenges that happen less frequently but create serious consequences if they occur? For example, a hazmat spill may be uncommon, but there may be significant, even deadly, consequences for not following the proper response procedure. If a mistake or problem could put lives or safety at risk, include it in the scenario.

Select your challenges to meet the requirements above. During the analysis phase, I often ask SMEs what mistakes or misunderstandings are common. Ask your SMEs follow-up questions about the consequences of those mistakes. Those challenges become decision points in your course; the consequences become the intrinsic feedback showing learners the effects of their choices.

4 Cs for scenarios

The challenges are one of the 4 Cs for creating scenarios.

Your experience

If you create scenarios for learning, what issues do you find creating challenges for your characters to face? Leave a comment (or reply to the email) and tell me about your experiences. If you’re having trouble, we can try to work through the problem together.

Originally published 6/1/2016. Updated 2/24/2020.

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