,Storytelling is a key component of brand building, helping companies connect with potential customers and build long-term relationships with existing customers.
Good storytelling is also really hard.
That's why I talked to Michael Hirst, the creator, writer, and executive producer of Vikings, the History Channel ratings juggernaut that starts its fourth season on November 30th. Michael also created and wrote every episode of The Tudors and wrote the screenplays for the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies.
So, yeah: He knows a lot about telling stories that connect.
This will be the fourth season of Vikings, and you have a very large base of loyal fans. Yet of course you want to draw in new viewers. How do you balance the two goals? Or do you even see them as separate goals?
When I started thinking about the show, all those years ago, I knew that History was a male-skewed network and that my core audience was likely to be young males, whom I needed to feed on raw meat. In other words, plenty of visceral action.
There were obvious limits to this, of course, since Vikings is a network, and not a cable, show--and these limitations applied to depictions of nudity, etc. I decided to turn these limitations into opportunities. I would not use gratuitous sex and violence--as in Game of Thrones--but make sure the violence, for example, was appropriate to the story, its historical setting, and to my characters. The "awful" scene of the blood eagle in season two was not a cynical attempt to shock the audience: It was about the character's attempt to enter Valhalla by not showing his pain and suffering.
In other words, always "story." In terms of sexuality, I thought of it as being more about my female characters--whom I didn't want to be just window dressing. I like writing female characters and like empowering them. I think powerful women, like Lagertha, can be very sexy. And actually, as a result, the show now has a very large female following, which pleases me enormously.
As for enticing new viewers, I don't think about that very much. I just try to keep the storylines as compelling and authentic as I can. As I know from my visits to Comic Con, our most fervent fans love and believe in the characters, so I have to remain truthful to them.
You've killed off some beloved characters, none more beloved than Athelstan. How do you decide it's time to move on from a character or storyline?
It caused me considerable grief to kill off Athelstan. He was one of my favorite characters in the show. Of course, he never goes away totally. His ghost or his presence continues to haunt the show.
However, I felt that I had to resolve the spiritual crisis that was at the heart of his being. He could no longer flip-flop between paganism and Christianity, or the audience would likely become bored. And although his death pained me, the manner of it was satisfying and meaningful. It wasn't arbitrary or for effect.
I think we do death very well in Vikings!
You don't just randomly plop characters into your plots; every one has a purpose. How do you decide to bring in new characters and what they should be?
Nearly all the characters actually come out of my historical research. Most are real people. When they appear is partially a matter of judgment--will they make a big impact here, or should I keep them up my sleeve?
But, of course, when I know that, for example, I am taking them to Frankia (France) in the next season, then I know I am going to have to find interesting ways of introducing the Frankish emperor and Count Odo, charged with the defense of Paris.
It helped immensely that I knew from my research that the real Count Odo had an iron hand! When you have information like that, it somehow brings the character more immediately to life.
You're extremely good at creating characters and stories that viewers connect with. Ragnar has tons of fans, Lagertha has become a feminist icon, Rollo is ... Rollo is just plain fun. How do you go about creating characters and stories that people relate to and feel so much a part of?
I rather see it as my mission to connect the past to the present. I want my characters to connect with the lives of my viewers, and I want their issues, ambitions, and problems to resonate with contemporary men and women. So I try to think about what it is that makes them human!
For me, Elizabeth I was primarily not an historical construct but a young and vulnerable woman who was taking over her father's business at a difficult time, when it was threatened by two other ambitious businesses. Of course, her father's business was England, and the other two businesses were France and Spain. But you get my point.
And one way of making Ragnar sympathetic to a contemporary audience--and to challenge the cliché of the brutal, ignorant, bloodthirsty, and rapist Viking--was quite simple: to show him as, at heart, a family man with strong ethical belief.
Who knew that Vikings could love their wives and children? Amazing, isn't it?
When you're writing an episode, how do you decide you're "done"? Do you get feedback from other people at any time during the process?
Endings change. After I've submitted my first draft of each episode, I do get feedback from History, MGM, and production, and I listen. Sometimes, I don't actually realize that I've written the ending. On other occasions, an ending simply "just feels right."
An ending has to perform at least two functions. It has to be a satisfactory conclusion of the episode. But at the same time it has to leave enough loose ends for people to desperately want to see the next episode.
Is there an episode you're particularly proud of? And one you might do a little differently now, if you could?
I'm particularly proud of episodes 414 and 415! Really!
But you'll have to wait until around Christmas to watch them!!
Larger companies create brand messages, but the dissemination of those messages is in the hands of many people. That's not unlike your writing a script, since directors, actors, et al., then bring it to life. Any tips for creating a story or message that is more likely to be delivered the way you hope?
When History, at our first meeting, asked me how I would think of promoting a show based on long-dead people, I said: "Put up a huge poster on Sunset Boulevard with just the word VIKINGS on it."
The Vikings are such a recognizable brand. Everyone in the world has heard of them. The word itself conjures up immediate and visceral images. No need to be clever.
Connect with things that are already inside people's minds and imaginations. You don't have to "create" messages--you have to "read" them.