Why people read (fiction) and why you should care
Who are you writing for? This is a question not to take lightly. It’s a difficult question too. As I’ve said before in an article I wrote about the lessons I learned form Perennial Seller, I’m still figuring it out. But luckily there is help everywhere.
I have frequently come across the advice to write for yourself. Which is sound advice, but how many of you are out there to read it? I think you must keep in mind particular kinds of readers. (As hard as it is).
Recently, I’ve stumbled upon an Instagram post by someone I went to high school with. She and her family are friends with renowned Dutch author Renate Dorrestein. A prolific Dutch writer with a career spanning many novels in diverse genres and a love for the works and genius of Kurt Vonnegut.
I’d never read anything by Renate Dorrestein, but she just released an autobiography, sharing insights about her writing career. A career which crossed boundaries, having been published beyond the Netherlands in many countries. Some of her books have been published in English too. Her autobiography however, not (yet). And I must say, I found it very intriguing and I learned a ton.
One of the best chapters in the book is about her relationship with her readers. Because as she states, it’s never a given that you get any eyes on your work.
In a two-part piece, I want to explore how you determine who you write for, and most importantly, WHY YOU SHOULD CARE.
“Just like the client of a prostitute, a reader is within the grasp of a romantic illusion.” — Renate Dorrestein
And you better make sure that illusion worthwhile.
Why do people read fiction?
Many people have done research about this. Dorrestein talks about an article by Shirley Brice Heath. In her research, she asked people on public transport why they read.
In her autobiography, Renate shares her Heath’s insights, as well as insights from other authors and herself.
This results in an interesting list. How many reasons apply to you too?
- Reading frees us from the tyranny of the clock.
- Our life is short, our brains small, our memory fallible and we can only be in one place at the same time. Reading allows for us to compensate for those shortcomings.
- Books and stories grant us access to varied human views otherwise unattainable or perhaps even unimaginable.
- Reading is a way of thinking about yourself. You become a better person because of it and it aids in maintaining your intellectual and ethical integrity.
- Reading is simply being absorbed into a story.
- To read is to escape from daily troubles.
“Fiction let us try different mental states and experience other minds in action.” — Lisa Zunshine
For me the most important reason to read is curiosity. This can manifest itself in being curious about a particular story, but also about style, tone, themes, subjects or recommendations. If someone recommends you their favorite book, I’d like to think you learn a lot about that someone when you read it.
Now, why should you care about all this?
The investments of your readers
First and foremost, a reader gives you his or her time, one of the most valuable things people can offer. In addition, they may give you money, by buying your book, or clapping for your article.
It takes effort and dedication to read. It’s one thing to open an article or book, yet another to be prepared to set aside your presuppositions and be open to the writer’s opinion.
Readers should be patient, in order to find their gems. To find what they are searching for in an article or story. They have to be patient with passages in which seemingly nothing happens.
A reader should be poetic enough to understand metaphors and imagery. To recognize irony, satire or exaggerations.
And most importantly, they should be human enough to be willing to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Your reader invests a lot. So you’d better invest in them too and over deliver.
Now the difficult part comes to show, what investments should you make?
Why you should always write with your readers in mind
In the early 2000s, the University of Minnesota invited her to teach a masterclass in creative writing to a group of PhD students. Before she started out, she received some of the works written by the students. One thing that was striking to her was that their writing was good, but that it lacked one essential thing.
It lacked the essence of writing. The necessity of reaching out your arms to your readers within your work. To invite them in.
The stories written by the students felt distant to her, haughty even. Like they didn’t want to be read.
“You can write whatever you want, but if you do not invite your readers in, to let them pierce through your stories, then you should save yourself the trouble.” — Renate Dorrestein
I’m not saying you should write something merely to service your readers. Or because of the fact that the books on the bestseller list all share a common denominator, therefore must be what readers want to read.
No. As a writer or any artist, you have something to tell. A subject you care about. A societal issue that is bothering you. Human virtues or vices you want to explore. The list could be endless.
Write about you want, but just bear in mind your readers. Writing is reciprocal. It’s true, you are creating alone. But on the other end are your readers, interacting with your ideas, characters, reflections and issues. As said, readers invest in your work, therefore you should invest in your readers.
“The reader is the accomplice of the writer.” — Alberto Manguel
Invite the reader in. Make your character(s) relatable. Make readers wonder, think and daydream about the issues you present. Create “What would I do in that situation?” conditions.
Get under their skin. Play around with your plot. There is one story in Dorrestein’s autobiography, in which she tells about readers who where extremely upset about a pressing question presented in one of her novels not being answered. It literally kept them up at night. She said that as a writer she had accomplished what she aimed for. People cared. As a civilian however, she felt horrible, because so many people were upset.
Readers always assume that the writer was thinking about them when they wrote the story. This is probably due to the fact that you have such intimate one-on-one contact in a story or novel, according to Renate Dorrestein. And it’s true! How many times haven’t you thought ‘Harry Potter is written for me’, or ‘I went through the exact same things as Holden Caulfield in University’? Or when a story stirs up particular desires like wanting to go to Hogwarts too, bring the ring to Mordor, or women who want to spend a night with Mr. Grey.
Characters, their feelings and desires become part of a reader’s life. Some can even become friends to the reader.
“For why would a character brought to live by the reader, by holding them dear, merely exist between the covers of the book?” — Renate Dorrestein
How to determine who your readers are
Spend time thinking about who your readers might be. What can they get out of your work? In my own short stories, like The Money Tree for instance, I’d like them to think about the role money plays in their lives. Or in The Sapien Zoo, about the direction the future might take in terms of technology. What will it do to humanity?
A writer and his or her reader together shape a story. That’s where the magic happens. A transcendental experience from writer to reader.
And it helps to think about it as a marketer too, there’s no denying. Especially when you self publish. Because if your self publish, you must make sure that people get to interact with your work. And to do that, you must have some idea of who might bring your story to life in their imagination.
I started thinking about people similar to me. Because, I like and care for the subjects I write about. Who might be similar to me?
How would you describe your stories or novel? Go from there. Can you relate it to something that’s already out there? Figure out where those people spend their time (on the internet).
I compare my stories to the stories presented in the TV Show Black Mirror and fairy tales. When I say this to people I see most people nod in recognition.
What else? Because I write short stories about different subjects, I find people online who write about those subjects and reach out. From time to time someone is willing to link or repost a story!
Or here on Medium, you can place tags with your stories, in accordance to the subjects you write about and followed by people interested in those subjects.
Lastly, see who responds well to your stories. When speaking to people, in comments online. Slowly you can begin to build a profile.
This article presents multiple ideas in order to achieve two things:
- To write better because you have your readers in mind
- To aim for the right people when you self publish
Why do people read fiction? Why should your care about why people read?
Why should your write with your readers in mind? And how can you determine who your readers are?
“Every book is au fond a box full of lifeless words — until a reader is willing to bring them to live with his eyes.” — A.F.Th. van der Heijden