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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

Literary Lessons: The positive Catch-22 of characters in business


- Elana Duffy

My favorite book is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Between the sardonic humor, sarcasm, and - however ridiculous the book may seem - truisms of military life, it has captured my attention time and again. It is different; it emulates none of the other stories of its time, and continues to challenge me as a reader to notice something new with each reading.

Not to mention its accuracies that apply to other aspects of life, such as business. Having left the military and now working in various start-ups, I frequently find myself modifying the very catch for which the book is titled: you can’t start a business (or fly a plane) if you are crazy, but you’d have to be crazy to start a business (or fly a plane).

But what brings me back to the story time and again, as with any story, are the experiences of the crew. I know each of the characters and become a part of the story each time I pick it up. Yossarian, our unwilling protagonist, just wants to make it through the story alive. There’s Appleby, with flies in his eyes according to Orr, who spends his time alternately perfecting crash landings and making life on the ground comfortable through innovation. The entire cast is memorable, making the book memorable.

So in this, one can learn more for business than just Milo buying eggs for seven cents and selling them for five yet still able to find a profit. In addition, one can learn the importance of telling business stories through characters.

Identify, develop, and share your characters. In business, what sets you apart from the competition is your story, and the basis for that story is your characters. A character doesn’t have to be a single person; it can be a department, a team, a project, as each still has a perspective.

Having well-defined and continually evolving characters is a creative way to tell pieces of your never-ending story, and to make it something worth recalling. Your business’s story is complex, but sharing your characters will give you a way for your customers to digest the different aspects and recall them later. In Catch-22, we know that Doc Daneeka, with his fear of flying and terror of a more hazardous assignment, had an initially failing medical practice on Staten Island that boomed with the war effort (until he was called to duty). Even such a slight tidbit enriches his character, makes him more real to us. Your own characters - a person, a project, a team - have the same impact, with each shared piece bringing your customers closer. Each character has a background, something that we as customers or readers want to know.

Find multiple viewpoints. Your story can be told from many angles, not just those of management and vision. Marketing has a vision of a developing product that is different from the attachment the development team has for it, or from how the post-sales support team sees the product. Managers may see a story from their side, but their customers and end users may have a different perspective. By approaching a circumstance from multiple points of view, you make your story become more real to your customers. Gather these stories, and use them to better tell your story. You can let do this directly by encouraging employees tackle the corporate website’s latest blog post about a new innovation, or through more subtle means such as gaining their input to a new marketing strategy via a crafted survey, which lets their voice be heard. Each chapter in Catch-22 links directly to a character, with some of the myriad of plot lines told from several points of view. In so doing, we get more of the story and understand more of the picture, seeing the beach-side base clearer with every telling.

Be approachable. Catch-22 is made more real through the overall humanity of the characters. Each one has something of which they are proud, something they fear, and something of which they are (or in some cases should be) ashamed. We can see a little piece of ourselves in each individual, and in so doing become more attached to the story.

What aspects of your projects can help humanize your story, either for an internal or external audience? What will cross barriers between teams as they understand and learn from each other, drawing themselves deeper into your mission? As you make your characters more approachable, you’ll not only bring your customers closer, but strengthen your projects and employees as they build on each other.

There are many things to admire about Catch-22, the least of which being that one can pick it up and start from any chapter, and as long as you read back around again to where you began, you lose none of the story and can still remember it. One must respect that the tale is widely applicable as well - similarities exist between the fictional misadventures of a WWII bombardier squadron in Pianosa and nearly every bureaucratic situation known to every business around the world. Your story, too, can be molded and turned to attract attention and captivate an audience each time it is told.

But no one remembers a story without prominent characters; they are what make your story stand out. So discover and develop your characters. The bonus from this is it will force your business to grow and thus nurture your story through the development of each individual, project, and team.

You can build a great story if you have great characters to share, but you will only have great characters to share if you’ve built a great story in which you can share them.

That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

Elana Duffy is co-founder and COO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. Working with everyone from authors to Fortune 500 companies, we provide a range of writing, editing, and training services. Lana is also a veteran of the US Army, a masters of engieering graduate, and a freelance writer in NYC.

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