One of the best ways to engage readers in a story is to include personal interests. Some interests are shared by lots of people: pets, or baseball, for example. People who love pets usually cry when a furry secondary character dies. Baseball isn’t just a game, it’s a culture, a team, a relationship with your father, maybe. These words alone conjure feelings and memories. So, how can we use our interests to connect with modern fantasy readers?
Who are you writing for? Young people who just finished Harry Potter or Mark of the Thief? Women age 25-55 who are devouring romantic fantasy at an alarming rate? People like my dad, whose shelves are lined with non-fiction history books (mostly about wars) and epic fantasy from the 70s onward? These are three very different groups of people, with different expectations and needs.
It’s totally great to break out of the mold and write an atypical interest in a current genre. I write romantic fantasy, but I grew up reading from my dad’s shelf (because, you know, free is awesome). While I don’t care much for the war parts per se, I’m in love with history now. Maybe some of the lesser-known aspects, even. And those things frequently find their way into my stories.
It’s okay to say, “I’m writing for people who like what I like.” But, will your reader enjoy learning from your creative use of an interest as far as it relates to the main plot of the story? Will they be patient as you show all you know about a subject you find particularly exciting—like Mopar muscle cars or hybrid tea roses? Or will they feel a deep exploration of the subject is an intrusion on the story?
It makes for a great story when special interests are utilized by a writer who really knows their stuff. Especially when they use personal knowledge of their interest along with the main plot—a robber who drives a muscle car as a getaway vehicle, and is captured “My Cousin Vinny”-style, or a “Murder, She Wrote” sort of story where a case-solving clue is found in a garden shed by an investigator who’s a rose enthusiast (I’m going to come back to muscle cars and roses in a bit).
How Much is Too Much
Is a novel the best place to show everything you know about your hobbies, or about a fascinating subject you’ve researched? How do we decide which choices are immersing and which are overwrought? That’s why we want to understand up front who our target audience is.
Many writers successfully include their interests as a dash of flavor, even if it’s a strong flavor. Like garlic. It’s meant to elevate things, but sometimes we cannot plan an entire story meal around garlic. Too much, and it spoils the whole night.
I make a garlic mushroom dish that’s about my favorite thing to eat—ever. I warn guests that it’s pretty strong, and one night when I brought the dish to a friend’s dinner party (because I always try to bring a vegetarian option, too), one guest felt it was so strong she couldn’t stomach it, while other guests gobbled it up and took seconds.
Readers also have taste preferences. People who love garlic (or Mopar cars, or roses) will love a healthy amount of the stuff that tickles their fancy. They’ll enjoy those hobbies filling the pages and being linked to the overall conflict and resolution of the story. Other readers will feel bored by the attention to those details…and prefer plain boiled mushrooms, I guess.
Just be clear who you’re writing (or cooking) for, and give a fair and honest blurb (which functions as an advertisement for those people searching out special interests, as well).
If you want to write an urban fantasy crime drama that features Mopar cars…who will be reading it? Car mechanics who appreciate the intimate look at muscles cars while they’re grabbing a coffee and reading with grease-stained hands? Or thriller-readers, perhaps middle age and up, who will remember the good old days, when reading about 383s and 4-barrel carbs? And the smell of carb cleaner on a hot summer night overwhelms them and becomes part of the story’s immersion?
Consider ahead of time how your interest finds its way into your story. If you write your rose-loving investigator as a monk trying to solve a murder in his alt-earth Medieval monastery, decide whether to explain roses in general terms to capture the attention of people who don’t really care about flower cultivation, or whether to make it a central motif that will echo the theme of the story by revealing how much the subject means to the character. Maybe his job is tending the garden?
As far as writing a compelling tale for your target audience, think about whether you understand the expectations of your readers. Are your readers going to buy what you’re selling when you stretch reality in a way that you find plausible, or fudge a little history because it made sense to you? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Maybe they’ll go along for the ride, or maybe they’ll call you an idiot and stop reading. It’s a delicate balance, really.
I really loved the movie Interstellar. Is it real? Could it be? I don’t care. To me, it’s compelling. I’m science-stupid, but history-smart, so while a story about science doesn’t have to prove much for me to believe it, a historical story needs to really be amazing for me to get over inaccuracies. It kills me when I see idiotic representations of real-world history. Yep, call me a hater. I hate it, and historical romance (which I used to read a lot) is one of the worst, so I avoid it. Boom, I’m not the target audience. And I know plenty of folks who can outsmart loads of science-fiction stories, but read them anyways because they enjoy them (or just enjoy complaining). What amount of believability will your target audience require?
We need to be aware of the choices we make, honest about why we make them, and respectful of a reader’s intelligence. It’s okay to kindly ask readers to suspend belief while you make an elephant disappear from a stage they can’t inspect, but it’s entirely another if you tell them to close their eyes and hum while you make the magic happen.
I realize these aren’t in the same category as “interests,” but what about your personal beliefs, your spiritual views, or your (or your character’s) identity as a member of a particular race, gender, or sexual preference? Do you have to think about who your target audience is in regard to those issues?
Some of those questions will be defined by genre. For example, historical romance readers are overwhelmingly women. Most want to relate to a female protagonist who is trying to win the love of a man who isn’t upon first glance a perfect match, but who will complete her by challenging her to overcome her personal problems or emotional baggage. It’s a tried and true template. But what about fantasy?
Fantasy stories often deal with modern issues. Not just race, gender, and sexuality, but other issues relating directly to personal identity (often in creative and unique ways): gender roles, societal pressures, social structure, the method of attaining wealth, personal magic powers, rites of passage, family dynamics, belief in a higher power(s), internal darkness of one’s soul, and so much more!
There is a huge range between epic fantasy, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, and children’s fantasy. And even within those categories! The shelves in the library are flooded with MG and YA fantasy stories ranging all the way from “talking animal adventures,” to “magical kids who have typical high school problems,” to “elves/non-humans trying to save their magical world.”
What is your target audience hungry for, and how can you best use your interests and personal knowledge to enhance your story and make it compelling? Could you have a “magical group of kids who have typical high school problems”…that also collect and race muscle cars because it’s the way they settle differences between the two rival gangs of vampires in town?
The Pros and Cons
Some of my favorite books have taught me things I didn’t know anything about. Others have butchered subjects I love. It can be disappointing to see your interests portrayed badly by someone who didn’t do much research, but sometimes that’s okay and it doesn’t spoil your enjoyment of the story.
When we decide what to write, most advice tells us to write what we know, and it can be hard (especially as young writers) to understand how much we need to know about a subject to include it in our stories. Now that the internet is here to aid all writers, we thankfully can write some things we don’t know. Some of my recent searches might even get a couple dark looks from anyone hovering over my shoulder when I open my browser history. And I think that’s really common among writers.
In fact, whole sites have been devoted to some pretty interesting subjects…just for writers. How to poison someone, Medieval life, glossaries of words for writing romance, creating the perfect murder, and so many more.
What are some of the subjects you’ve researched in order to tell a good story?
What are some of your favorite interests that have been featured in stories?
Have you included any of your personal interests in your own stories?
What interests would you like to see featured more in fantasy stories?
Follow A. Howitt’s journey as a fantasy writer on her Facebook page.