The Fourth Wall and Character Blogs

In theater there’s a term called the Fourth Wall – basically the boundary between the audience and the fiction. Imagine this: You’re watching the new (and very good) Superman movie. Superman is flying through the air but you can see the guy off stage operating the wires. Ruins the illusion, right?

Or imagine watching Friends and seeing the full set, with only three walls, nervous assistants, and the craft table. Makes it impossible for you to suspend disbelief and let your mind move to the belief that these are real people, not actors playing characters. Doesn’t work very well, does it?

Character blogs (blogs written by fictional characters) are starting to be used more and more by TV shows to attempt to further extend the character development beyond the 22 minutes of sitcom. Two examples are Dwight’s blog (from The Office on NBC) and Barney’s blog (from How I Met Your Mother on CBS). Both are pretty amusing reads that further build out amusing characters. On How I Met. On that show, Barney actually talks about the blog further extending the illusion of his character when he has a blog in real life. (Since I don’t watch The Office all the time, I’m not sure there)

The problem comes when you see the implementation of these "blogs". They don’t look or act like any real blog. They don’t have their own URLs. They don’t extend the illusion of being from a "real person". They’re simply marginally updated pages within the larger brand site, complete with NBC.com/CBS.com branding, banner ads, and navigation. Talk about ruining the illusion…

This screams "I’m not real! This is copy from the marketing department, not from the characters (i.e. the writers for those characters)!"

So then how do you create a great "character blog"? Here’s my rules:

1. Keep it right – Find the right concept, whatever that is for your business. Don’t expect an entertainment based blog to replace a business blog, and vice versa. Sometimes you need to entertain your users, sometimes you need to have honest dialogue with them. You can mix honest dialogue with entertainment, but it’s a tough road to hoe. Make sure you throughly think through the project.

2. Use what you have – Just because your brand has a mascot/icon doesn’t mean that mascot/icon would make a good character blogger. Make sure that users would get a laugh out of your character blog concept and that they’d be interested in coming back regularly to find out what your character is going to do next.

3. Make it real – Use Typepad or Blogger. Add an RSS feed. Allow comments. You know – create a blog… a real, honest to goodness blog. After all, if you have "blog" in the description of what you’re creating, maybe you should actually deliver on that.

4. Connect the dots – When you’re spending big money on traditional advertising, or on a TV show, don’t forget to take advantage of that spend in other areas. Barney (How I Met Your Mother) saying "You really don’t read my blog, do you?" on the TV show itself was brillant. Viewers could extend the 22 minute experience into much more time spent with the brand (in this case the show) by checking out the blog entry Barney refers to. The show becomes more "real" and the fourth wall is never seen.

5. Extend the illusion – Push the limits of the fourth wall. Create a universe that people can get excited about and sucked into. Remove any unnecessary (which is to say "all") branding from the character blog that doesn’t specifically support the character development. If the character is your corporate mascot, then certainly your corporate logo belongs on the site. Otherwise extend the perception of reality by constantly asking "If ______ was a real person and was really creating this blog, would they put ______ on it?" If the answer is no, then skip it.

If you’re interested in further discussion of character blogs check out Shel’s support or Steve’s annoyance. Both good reads.

What do you think? Have you found any character blogs that you love/hate? Why?