Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How To Romance Your Readers - And Sell More Stories

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 passed away in 2016. He held a PhD in Creative Writing, judged the Writers’ Village story competition and was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. His Writers’ Village short story contest drew 1500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. Some of his blog posts are archived here, (however the writing class enrollment and downloads are no longer available).


  1. More good advice, John: to the point and actionable. I did something like that in my Homeland Connection thrillers, where the protagonists are rather ordinary people who end up thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Readers do tend to identify the author with the character, even when they are way off target. One of my characters is mildly OCD, but because he shares some occupational history with me, some readers have assumed he is me. The history is just a convenient background from a world (consulting and journalism) familiar to me, but the character is very different from me: obsessive-compulsive, a loner,...

    Of course, ultimately, I would say that every character we write is in some sense us, in that they spring from our experiences and learning as filtered by our own brains.

  2. Author Gayle Wilson said to create characters readers will love, the reader should be thinking, "If I were ever in that situation, that's how I hope I'd respond." She was talking more about heroes and heroic behavior, but I think it translates across the board.

    Terry's Place

  3. Poirot and Marple are unforgettable and lovable. Their secret weapon is a benign appearance. If I were writing as me, my characters would all be Temperance Brennan. LOL. As a reader, the character doesn't have to be anything like me (their lives would be utterly boring). The writer's challenge is to make me care what happens to their character. The minute I stop caring, I put the book down.

  4. Thanks, Larry. It's especially gratifying to hear from a novelist as prolific as Lior Samson. (Your cover is now blown...)

    I suspect one of the risks we run in presenting an unlikeable protagonist is that readers will suspect that, in some respects, the monster is us. (Apparently, Thomas Harris once had to publish a disclaimer 'I am not Hannibal Lecter!')

    On the other hand, it can be very therapeutic. One of my characters is a buffoon, very prone to pratfalls, who pretends to be wiser than he is. I can present myself in that character, warts and all, without shame. After all, it's only fiction (the reader will conclude). Isn't it?

  5. Another helpful post, John, and I always appreciate the comments that add more layers to the points you made.

    I agree with Larry that all our characters are bits of us because of our life experiences we bring to the table. Our challenge is to work from those bits and give the characters their own personality.

  6. Well, Diana, if all your characters were Temperance Brennan they'd be forever eating yogurt, whizzing fast food in their microwave and changing their underwear. (Am I the only Reichs reader who spots these things?)

    But you're right, of course. We still care about Tempe. Because she's as daft and fallible as we are...

  7. As Diane said, I think one of the keys seems to be creating protagonists (and some secondary characters as well) whom many readers would hope to be like in some way or ways. Of course, I'm not a published author yet, but I'm an avid reader.

    Although one thing I like about reading is that I learn about all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds, places, and time periods, with many different attitudes and reactions different from mine, I think this advice is probably a key to selling widely. And that's not a bad thing at all!

  8. If you are writing in a genre that you love as a reader, that you have read widely in, then you probably have a good sense of the kind of characters that appeal to readers of that genre. However, you may not realize exactly what it is about the characters that appeals to you and others. It's important to figure that out. For instance, if you enjoy classic P.I. novels, is it because you identify with loners who drink a lot and are prone to violent action? Or is it because you identify with the romantic figure of the knight-errant in a modern guise? Would your answers be the same as most readers of the genre?

  9. While I am aware that a couple of my protagonists are me (incognito, of course), I've never stopped to analyze how that might affect (appeal to or repulse) my readers. As a loner who prefers to sit in the corner and people-watch rather than be in the thick of the crowd, I've tried to project what I would be, were I more gregarious. So I superimpose some of me onto a character who does all the things I'd love to do if I didn't have to abandon my comfort zone. Then again, I like to write about the bad guys and explore why that are who (or what) they are. Does that mean there's a bit of the bad guy in me? Ooo...I hope not!

  10. Dr. John Yeoman, I am new to the writing-village and learned from your blog post as I set out to write novel number 2. Think of your reader. I think the goal more for my first novel was, entertain your reader. Most of them have given my title a 3.0 to 4.5 rating in their reviews. This is an avocation for me, so the pressure to produce something read-worthy is mine alone and of course what a small quantity of fans may now expect. Enjoy your day!

  11. John:
    What about tongue in cheek or outright humor? Even if story is serious, should a large measure of something to make readers smile, laugh, or gasp for air be included?
    The more serious minded a person is, the more buffoonish they can become. (My all time favorite is Hyacinth in Keeping up Appearances)
    thank you

  12. Welcome to my mini-course, Mellow Roc! I'm glad you're finding it helpful. Of course, you're totally right. The first goal of all fictional literature is to entertain. Nothing else matters. Unless they're writing the Gulag Archipelago with the intention of changing the world (and have the skills to do that), authors should focus on keeping their reader joyfully engaged. Leave the polemics and the clever-clever stuff, which few readers appreciate anyway, for the unreadable winners of the Booker Prize!

  13. True and good advice. I always thought my disclaimers would read "all characters are fabricated and in no way represent live persons, except the ones who suspiciously sound and act like the author."

  14. This is a new take for me, John, and interesting to wrap my head around. I don't concern myself with likability as much as relatability. I think that's why Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl was so popular—we readers didn't like either of her main characters (heaven help us if they were among our friends or family) but they opened our eyes to aspects of marriage that we could relate to and then took it to the nth degree. It helped me to see what my life might be like if I allowed baser notions to take over, and I found it fascinating. But I wouldn't like to be either of them, that's for sure!

  15. I love the news that our 83 year-old author has published a debut novel. That gives me hope and another fourteen years to get off my tush.

    I started my first serious writing attempt about 35 years ago and still fully intend to complete it. The subject of that story, John Sanderson, is fictional -- but of course he is really me in my lifelong hero and mentor's boots. It's the only way I could ever experience what he experienced. I have known him for more that sixty years, and still remember almost everything he ever said, and most of the stories. He was a consummate story teller and a published author, but was almost entirely self-educated. His only formal education was documented by an eighth grade diploma awarded to him on the basis of his accomplishments, because he went into the woods on snowshoes and supported himself and his widowed mother by trapping marten in the high country.

    Bud taught me some of that, and I still regard my trapping experience as the finest of my life. I only wish I were has organized as he was, and had the iron legs he did. I never could keep up with him until he was 90 years old. He died at the age of 93, in 2010. A true hero of the first order.

  16. Dave, your Bud sounds like a fine man. Do bring him to life for us in a novel! As I said in a previous post, one of the things I love about reading is getting to know people I could never know otherwise, who know so many things I don't know, have experienced so many things I haven't experiences, and who think and feel differently than I do!

  17. Bea, I, too, love to meet so many interesting people via the stories I read. I think that is probably what draws many of us to reading.

    Katherine, you made an interesting distinction between likability and relatability. I had always thought people needed to like a character to relate, so I am going to have to broaden my thinking process. :-)


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