Who are the Head, Heart, and Hands of your social change story?

Image from A Better Life for Lily – The Benevolent Society (see below) 

Every great story takes us on an emotional journey, and it’s the characters we meet along the way who drive that narrative forward. At Digital Storytellers, we’ve worked on lots of positive social change stories. Over the years, we’ve developed a simple yet powerful approach to help us map out narratives using three central characters: the Head; the Heart; and the Hands.

But who are those characters and how can you find them in your story? Let’s break it down…

The Heart

In order for stories to take us on an emotional journey – they need to invoke empathy or have some kind of relatability. We need someone to root for; someone to care about. That person is the beating Heart of your story – it’s core muscle. The Heart is the relatable central character and often has lived experience of the issue being explored. We’re invested in what they’re trying to achieve, and we want them to succeed. 


The Hands

As in life, the Heart cannot take this journey alone. That’s where the Hands come in. The Hands, or the Helper, is a reliable and helpful character, who is actively doing work on the ground and supporting the Heart on their journey. They’re the character winning the gold statue for ‘Best Supporting Actor’. Vital, but not the focus of your story. 


The Head

To bring it all together, your story also needs a rational, logical and reflective character who makes sense of the journey for all of us. That role is played by the wise Head.The Head helps us, the audience, to establish the context of the story and to zoom out and see the big picture.


Here’s an example:

A woman is striving to overcome a personal disadvantage. Let’s call her Jenny. We meet Jenny first and quickly empathise with her situation. We want to overcome the obstacles in her path. She is motivated and deeply relatable. Jenny is our story’s beating Heart.

Jenny is being supported by a local case worker, John. John is reliable and shows Jenny how to rise and meet her challenges. This kind and nurturing quality makes John a great ‘Hands’. He gets the nod for Best Supporting Case Worker.

Zooming out from Jenny’s specific case, we hear from Jessica, the Director of the program that employs John and supports Jenny. Jessica is rational, strategic thinker who’s well-researched and has stats at her fingertips that reveal the big picture – that what Jenny is experiencing is a systemic issue. Jessica serves as our wise Head, establishing context and painting the bigger picture.

This approach works really well in bringing stories to life, from the local hangout to Hollywood.

A sidenote

Something to note for all budding storytellers – sometimes a single character embodies all three aspects of the Head, the Heart and the Hands, but they are more easily reflected in separate characters. There are no set rules to which order the characters appear, but we find that having the Heart at the beginning and end of the story works really powerfully.

So, next time you are trying to develop an engaging story for your cause or organisation, try out our Head, Heart and Hands approach.

What other approaches do you use in mapping out your social change narrative? Have you tried the Head, Heart, Hands? We’d love to know what you think! 

See the head, heart and hands in action in A Better Life for Lily. In this case, the head and hands are the same voice!

Trigger warning: This video discusses sensitive topics, including suicide. Some people may find parts of this content confronting or distressing. Recommended support services include: 1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732 & Lifeline: 13 11 14

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