Don\’t Dismiss Character Blogs

There’s been a bit of fuss in the blogosphere lately over the issue of character blogs: weblogs that are “written” by a fictional character. That is, the entries are presented from a rather allegorical perspective, as opposed to a realistic one.

Some very smart people (such as Steve Rubel) hate character blogs. Others like them, or at least aren’t inherently opposed to them. Personally, I think character blogs have their uses – depending on motives, goals, topics, and (most of all) audience…

To set this up, here’s an excerpt from Steve Rubel’s recent posting on this topic:

“Character blogs are a waste of time because a character is not and never will be human – unless it’s Pinocchio. …A character blog is a giant missed opportunity to have real humans …engaging in a real dialogue with consumers. I am all for using characters in TV commercials and even micro-sites, but having them blog is just a lame, lazy idea. In fact, it’s an insult to blogging and bloggers everywhere.”

Yes, I agree that weblogs can be an ideal vehicle for interaction. However, what if interacting with real humans would actually interfere with a higher goal of a particular weblog, such as education, or building enthusiam for a project? Or humor? Or making sophisticated yet important information more generally understandable?

The main situation that comes to my mind here is children. Kids are often surprisingly interested in advanced topics such as science, engineering, and mathematics – as long as the topic is presented in a kid-friendly manner. This means much more than simplifying complex, detailed information or writing for a certain grade level. It also often means incorporating coherent storytelling techniques – which is a surprisingly sophisticated communication technique.

Kids love listening to stories, and they are more engaged and attentive when they feel an ongoing connection to the storyteller – the narrator. You see this all the time on kid’s TV shows, such as the PBS series Postcards from Buster. The technique of using a fictional character as narrator helps kids connect empathically to what would otherwise be a more documentary-style presentation.

In fact, fictional characters might even be more successful guides and narrators (from a kid’s perspective) than real humans (adults or kids). I remember reading in Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book The Tipping Point about research conducted in the early days of Sesame Street.

If I remember correctly (sorry, I’m at my cabin now on dialup and don’t have my copy of the book handy), researchers discovered that kids watching Sesame Street were far more engaged (as measured by the amount of time watching the screen and participating in or imitating the show’s action) when watching scenes where puppets were played a leading role, than human-only or human-led scenes.

Bringing this back to weblogs…

It seems to me (my own totally unscientific best guess) that in weblogs geared toward young kids (especially blogs with educational goals), character blogs might be especially appropriate.

PBS has made a halfway attempt at this with the Postcards from Buster Blog. I’m not sure whether I’d consider it a “blog” or not, since it doesn’t allow comments and has some other key format differences. However, it is “written” by Buster – or at least assuming the Buster character.

HERE’S WHAT I’D LIKE TO SEE

I would love to see a blog for kids “written” by the two Mars Rovers. Right now there is some amazing exploration and research happening on Mars. It is genuinely exciting and significant. It will probably directly affect the lives of people who are children now. I think a truly interactive character blog of this type would be a great way to interest kids in space exploration. It could help them feel directly connected with what’s going on. And they could get their questions answered.

This approach wouldn’t necessarily exclude the voice of real humans. This blog could feature guest postings from scientists, engineers, policymakers, futurists, and others involved with this mission. it could be a group effort – and offer a unique twist on the concept of “diversity.” And it would probably be a lot of fun, for both the bloggers (real and fictional) and the target audience. It would have a sense of drama and adventure, too.

HUMOR MATTERS, TOO

Another great use for character blogs is when the driving goal of the blog is humor, including parody. Humor is a hard thing to pull off in any medium. However, I can’t help but recall that one of my favorite TV comedy bits was Weekend Update from Saturday Night Live. It wasn’t just the jokes that made those skits great – the characters, especially their ongoing nature, was the key. We got to know these characters and relate to them. That level of empathy made the humor more successful.

Character blogs can provide intriguing storytelling and a welcome bit of levity. This, I gather, is why the Austin American-Statesman once published a blog “written” from the point of view of Lance Armstrong’s bike. It was whimsical, and fun. While not serious news, it added what many bike-racing fans thought was engaging context.

So don’t discount character blogs wholesale, please. Just use them with great care. Be clear about your goals and your audience. And have fun.

6 thoughts on Don\’t Dismiss Character Blogs

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  1. Back before the days of weblogs I was a member of a mailing list for a while where the members assumed the voices of fictional (or non fictional) characters. For my part, I played the role of Sir Richard Francis Burton (ie., the explorer, not the actor) and had fun for about six months regaling the assembled with a long-running semi-fictitious dispute with John Hanning Speke about the source of the Nile and other oddities.

    People who say weblogs should not be ‘authored’ by fictional characters should remember, in my view, that on the internet your identity is something you create, not something you inherit, and that the assumption of various identities is one of the more empowering – let alone fun – aspects of virtual life.

    I learned a lot about Richard Burton, too.

  2. What’s a Character Blog?
    Dave, I’ve been reading all sorts of stuff on different weblogs about “character blogs”, but I’m still not clear on what they are and whether they’re a good thing or not. What’s your opinion?…

  3. Steve Rubel’s right. Captain Morgan’s life-as-blogged was pretty much lame and unbelieveable. But I wouldn’t write off the whole idea of character blogs based on that example. My wife, a marketer, has reminded me plenty of times when I havnen’t “got” the concept or idea behind an advert or marketing ploy that it’s usually because I’m not part of the target market. Maybe that blog’s not aimed at getting Steve Rubel to buy more rum. Maybe it’d work better on someone else. There’s plenty of recent references in blogs about how bad the Captain Morgan blog marketing device really is, but in the several denigrating blog entries I’ve read, I haven’t once seen a blogger say, “I wanted to buy some rum, but I’m not going to buy Captain Morgan, ‘cos he’s got such a lame blog.” Or anything like that. You can check it out for yourself by just entering “Captain Morgan blog” into Google search and read ’em for yourself.

    But let’s move on from the specific case of the good Cap’n to the general one of character blogs. It’s like Steve Rubel’s saying the only thing that can be an authentic blog is one written by a real person as thenselves, describing their own life, their own thoughts, their own journeys via internet links, etcetera.

    C’mon Steve. Haven’tcha ever read any good fiction? Don’t you think that fiction can have something authentic and worthwhile to say about life, the human condition, it’s meaning? If that’s so, then you gotta read more, Steve. I recommend a good introduction to powerful fiction like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Most people read it the first time when they’re about 13 or 14 years old.

    Steve, can’t a character blog have something worthwhile to say about those things too? Granted, I’m not aware of any good example of that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible, nor that it’s not going to be a delight to read when it appears in a blog.

    And Steve. If you can be insulted by a character blog’s existence like Captain Morgan, then you must be very easily insulted. Just get on with your life Steve. Let it go.

    Get concerned about something else. Like race hate blogs. Captain Morgan’s blog never really hurt anyone. Can’t say the same for some other blogs.

  4. blog-talk
    Over at Contentious, Amy writes about character blogs, “weblogs that are ‘written’ by a fictional character.” I entertained doing something like that as I was coming up with the Caleb Walker blog name. But I didn’t think I had

  5. When you have large, multinational corporations tryig to be “cool” whether it’s by blogging, faux grafitti, or Super Bowl advertising it has a high probability of failing. Why? Because part of what makes something cool is the inherent risk underlying it. I don’t usually hear corporations rewarding executives for spending millions of marketing dollars on something that could backfire in the most wretched way. Plus the effectiveness of a blog is based on the authenticity of the emotion behind the writing. Irony and a sense of humor don’t impress stockholders unless, maybe, your David Letterman.

    There is one area where character blogs play an important role and that’s in social commentary. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin published a very popular series of letters written by a woman named “Constant.” Constant was, of course, Franklin himself but it allowed him to comment on the injustices of colonial life in ways that he could not otherwise.

    My cat, Spike, wants to do a blog. Should I let him?