Connecting With Your Reader
Telling a story is hard enough in itself, but ensuring it connects with the reader adds another level to an already challenging task. Readers want and need a reason to turn the page, and whilst a hook may work initially, it will not captivate your audience for very long. They may read all the way through but they will not care.
It does not matter whether you are writing within a specific genre and following its rules, dabbling amongst a few as either crossover or deliberately ignoring the traditional boundaries, or are simply telling a story that can be categorised later once you have finished; it is important to understand that certain themes resonate with audiences more than others.
Stories facilitate escapism, and we enjoy them because we want, on some level, to escape from our lives and step into others. The rise in dystopian fiction can almost be directly correlated to the increase in technological surveillance and lack of privacy, yet we turn to the likes of Nineteen Eighty-Four or the Hunger Games as they show that, despite how bad our world is becoming, it pales in comparison to a fictional alternative. The Handmaid’s Tale may well be an incredibly grim vision of a possible future built by fundamentalists as a response to fundamentalism, but it is all the more prescient when taking into account the last fifty years of terrorist bombings and the constant battle of feminism against chauvinism.
As science-fiction opens possibilities of the future which usually we are unlikely to see in our own lifetimes, so fantasy gives us the opportunity to imagine new worlds governed by different rules to our own. The concepts of control and the normality of family and mortgages are removed, instead being replaced by quests and challenges that speak to who we are on a more instinctual level. This is the same reason why the Western is still popular: removing law and order gives us the chance to prove our virtue through actions, not words.
It is also worth remembering that fiction is driven by characters: we need someone to relate to and empathise with, no matter how far removed from us they may be. That being said, the reason we can focus on a character is because they are somehow special, even if they are not. Whatever world they live in, they are the centre of their own story. If someone works in a factory, endlessly manufacturing the same item over and over again, is that enough to capture an audience? Simply put, no. The character needs to undertake a journey, an arc. Even if they end up in the same place as when they started, we still need to go somewhere with them. They do not need to bring down the system—they can just remain an inconsequential cog in a giant machine—but something has to happen. Either they change, or they try to, or something forces them to, or prevents them from doing so.
Combining relatable characters with themes that resonate will give a strong foundation upon which to build your story. The reader can access the story through the protagonist—someone they can identify with—whilst simultaneously the thematic subtext triggers an emotional response. That will cement your audience into the world you are building, giving considerable scope for you to then push the boundaries of what is expected and acceptable without losing attention.
Take, for example, The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. Here we have a hedonistic protagonist who is more loathe-inspiring than likeable, yet we can understanding his choices and empathise with him. His decisions were caused by a combination of adoration from the artist who created his portrait, and the scheming libertine who manipulated and corrupted him when, fresh-faced and naive, he first arrived. The themes of satisfying want over need, eternal youth, and immunity to disease and decay all resonate well amongst a readership who, no matter their age, must face the consequences of their decisions and who are constantly getting older. The conflicts of love versus lust, being yourself or being accepted, selfishness over selflessness, and high class and low morals, can all be understood and build a connection with the audience who, at some time or another, have experienced them.
The way to connect with the reader, then, is to play on both the empathy a fully-formed character can bring out, and to intersect themes that resonate beyond the page and reflect conflict or elements of life that provoke an emotional reaction. But then, of course, to do this by design negates the result. Readers don’t want to be manipulated, they want to be seduced. If you try and force your reader to love your character and respond to your story, they won’t. You need to woo the reader, gently, and with substance alongside style. It’s about more than following a formula, it’s about being genuine. Your readers will know if you are just going through the motions, or trying a cheap trick to hold their attention. But they will also know if you are seducing them, and if you do it right, they will not only let you, but they will love you for it.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.