Here’s a fabulous tip for making sure your readers love your stories and want to read more. But first, let me ask you a question.
As fiction writers, do we always write about ourselves? Our character may be a mafia don, nun, pearl fisherman or - in a sci-fi novel - a thinking blob of mud but, however we camouflage ourselves, it’s us. Isn’t it?
First-time novelists notoriously write their autobiography behind a very thin disguise. When they’re into their tenth novel and the best-seller lists they’re still doing it, albeit with more skill.
When Patricia Cornwell presents her medical examiner Dr Kay Scarpetta as a chip of ice - all business, no humour - we see Cornwell herself. We may admire her craft work as an author but we wouldn’t invite her to dinner. But when Kathy Reichs gives us Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist in a comparable job, we warm to her feistiness, fallibility and dry wit. We’d just love to go to Reichs’s barbecue.
If the author is just like us, or how we’d like to be, we become a lifelong fan.
How to build our readers’ loyalty.
One way to turn our readers into lifelong fans is to pattern our protagonist upon our target reader - not as they really are but as they would like to be.
‘Cozy’ detective stories typically feature an amateur lady detective of a certain age. To strangers, she appears sweet, dull and utterly unmemorable. But show her a mystery and she’ll dive into a thrift shop and emerge, metaphorically speaking, as Superwoman.
Her prototype is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. The Marple stories can be enjoyed by people of all genders and backgrounds, of course, but their core readership is ladies of a certain age. (Superwomen indeed, although their menfolk will rarely admit it.)
For menfolk, Christie created Poirot. We might think him a buffoon on his first appearance but, oh, those little grey cells!
Pattern your main characters on your readers.
How can you do this? Mentally picture the person you are writing for.
If yours is a ‘genre’ story, draw up a profile of the typical reader of, say, romance, sci-fi, paranormal mystery, crime (of every flavour), historicals and the like. And examine their tastes. A Google search along the lines of ‘historical fiction readers demographics’ can be highly revealing.
The stories most favoured by both US and UK readers, it seems, feature a notable (real) person who lived in England in the 13th to 16th centuries and engaged in an adventure that was recorded in history books. Female readers like an added undertone of romance while men opt for a military angle. (Source: AWriterofHistory.com)
So your ideal protagonist would be an erudite soldier, prominent in the Wars of the Roses (mid 15th century), and warring at home with a feisty woman. Her role can be played up or down according to the gender of your target reader.
What real historical characters fit that profile? How about William Hastings, who was knighted at the Battle of Towton in 1461, and his strong-minded wife Katherine Neville?
Sounds perfect! Unfortunately, Ken Follet got there before us. His historical adventure Pillars of the Earth, featuring precisely those characters, sold 18 million copies. How could it fail? It profiled its target readers.
Model your protagonist on your ideal reader and your protagonist becomes the reader’s ‘I’ or ‘eye’ in the text. It’s the character they’ll bond with.
Is that approach a formula?
Yes. It was long-whiskered even by the turn of the 20th century. H. Rider Haggard lampooned it wickedly in his hilarious Mr Meeson’s Will (1911). But the formula works. Haggard had previously used it, without a blush, in his adventure novels that sold more than 100 million copies.
Look at any escapist modern novel and you’ll find some variant of that pattern. The reader is given an ‘I’ or ‘eye’ in the text to escape into. If the protagonist is just like themselves, or how they’d like to be, the job’s done.
It’s also the secret of a great conversation.
Stop talking about you. Start talking about them. And it works in novels. Write about your reader. You can’t help writing about yourself, anyway. Your characters will always be you, however you disguise them, so your ego will still be gratified. But, like Rider Haggard’s, your novels might sell 100 million copies.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers-Village.org/Academy-intro