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“The awful thing about life is this – everyone has their reasons” says Jean Renoir’s character Octave in the 1939 film Rules of the Game. Paul Whitington, in his Independent review of this weekend’s box office winner Joker also notes that ‘monsters usually come from somewhere’.

Joker is dark and controversial but is also a brilliantly constructed and absorbing portrayal of an inconspicuous man’s daily challenge with mental health issues. It tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a dreamer living in a disenfranchised society within a failing Gotham City. It turns on its head what we believe we know of Joker, a super-villain with no super-human powers and no remorse, hell-bent on attracting the attention of Batman, whose own parents he killed.

This back-story, wholly occupied by Joaquin Phoenix, shows how a series of events in Arthur’s life drove him to be the terrifying villain we love to hate, with a spine-tingling clarity of purpose.

So, knowing the outcome, why do we feel sympathy for Arthur – which in itself, concedes Whitington, is morally problematic? I like to analyse structure when watching or reading a story and have to say that Joker made me think of storytelling in a different way. It made me consider how a writer can make an audience feel empathy when the protagonist IS the evil to be overcome.

We don’t often have such a focus on an evil protagonist (I won’t call him a hero), or a story resolution of this kind (which I won’t spoil for you). It is uncomfortable to realise that while watching I was willing on Arthur to break free from his struggles and achieve his terrible destiny; even though I knew that would mean seeing evil defeat what I may believe to be good.

Co-writer Todd Phillips, collaborating with his actors as they filmed, treads a very fine line here. What he does is to set up the story elements – from inciting incident to resolution – while understanding that the real story is how what happens affects the protagonist, which drives what he does as a result.

This single-minded focus on the central character’s internal drivers, or objects of desire, towards achieving their goal, is what creates empathy in the audience. As events unfold, Arthur’s desire for respect, admiration and love, remain resolute. It takes the emergence of Joker to bring that about for Arthur.

As the character moves from isolation, through alienation to insanity, those most human of internal drivers allow the audience to see his internal struggle, and ourselves in him, so we are emotionally engaged and carried along in his quest.

So how can that understanding of storytelling be applied to business? The business story should always pivot around a core need in the audience (usually a customer) to be resolved but should always end on a positive (i.e. a good resolution).

Stories remind us how, rather than just pushing out what we want to say, digging into our audience’s deepest desire will uncover the insight we need, and the demand that follows.

For more thoughts on Applied Storytelling, please message Vikki Kirby or call on 07794 278089.

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