Brand storytelling trick

The end of the movie “American Gangster” has an interesting scene from a storytelling perspective — the scene where gangster Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is sitting in an interrogation room with narcotics officer Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).
Up to this point, Lucas was portrayed as a cold-blooded, highly intelligent gangster whom everyone underestimates. In one scene, he murders a man in broad daylight in Harlem, in front of his family, then returns to his breakfast table as if he had just swatted a fly. Just before the interrogation room scene with Crowe, the audience discovers that Lucas has been desecrating the coffins of US soldiers by smuggling dope inside them along with the soldiers’ bodies.

In other words, he’s not a very nice guy.

The stereotypical “gangster who loves and provides for his family” scenes were also in the movie. But, all told, Lucas is a difficult character to like. We can respect him, yes, and the movie portrays an interesting side to his story where everyone underestimated him because of the color of his skin. This racism helped him achieve so much because no one expected an African American to have so much influence.

So, yes, we can respect him. But he’s a difficult character to like, especially when we see how many lives he destroyed through his heroin business.

This is why the interrogation room scene with him and Roberts is so fascinating. It starts off with him trying to bribe Roberts — same old Lucas. But then the scene takes a sharp turn. Lucas tells an admittedly “heartwarming” story about growing up in a broken home. He slaps a coffee cup off a table and gives us a glimpse of his human pain.

I immediately started to feel some sympathy for the man.

How to make characters likable

This is an old storytelling technique — put a character in pain if you want the audience to like them. I was amazed at how my emotional response to this scene was so immediate, even though I know this storytelling “trick” very well. It still had an effect on me.

After this scene, Lucas changes and tells Roberts he wants “every single one of those cops” — the corrupt members of NYPD’s narcotics bureau who helped Lucas get to where he was. (All told, this ended up being either 66%+ or 75%+ of the entire NYPD narcotics bureau; I don’t recall the exact number.)

So, again, Lucas is now standing up for a righteous cause, and I found myself liking him slightly more.

Stories don’t emulate life

Stories don’t really emulate life. And movies do it worse than books. That’s because the element of time is removed. In a movie, the years of suffering that a community endures are crunched into just a few minutes. If we had personally suffered from what Lucas had done to his community, we might not be so forgiving after just one little scene that reveals his human pain.
But in a movie, one scene can change the audience’s attitude completely, as occurred above with me. Even just the change of lighting — softening it — can have profound effects.

But this is what makes a story a story. There are “tricks of the trade” to cause people to feel the emotional responses we want them to feel. This is true of books and films.

Storytelling is a powerful medium to get people to feel certain emotions for a brand. It’s impossible to guarantee what emotions every person will feel — personal experience has a lot to do with it — but it’s entirely possible to create a majority opinion of liking or disliking by hitting certain chords in your story, and using the right techniques to drive them home.