More than twenty years ago as I was finishing up some of my writing classes, I asked an aging poet named Leslie Norris, “How have the audiences changed in the course of your writing career?” Leslie grew thoughtful and said, “What astonishes me most is just how lonely people have become. People move from town to town, never getting to really know or enjoy their neighbors. Most people have few or no friends. It’s a terrible thing.”
He was certainly right. Some fifteen years ago, I went to a convention in Texas and met a very likable magazine publisher named Kerry O’Quinn. We had a great time in Texas, in part because the folks at AggieCon were so nice and down-to-earth. They’d get together for barbecues, sit back on the porch, drink their beers, and just talk in a way that was foreign to much of the rest of the country. I mentioned to Kerry how much I like Texas, and he said, “Yes, I have a home in New York, and when I want to work, I go there. I’ve lived in the same spot for 18 years and don’t even know my neighbors’ names. But when I want to enjoy myself, I come to my house here in Texas and sit on the porch. I get to talk to all of my friends all night long—but of course I can’t get any work done here!”
Over the years, I’ve paid attention to these changing trends, and I see how it affects all forms of entertainment. For example, in the videogame industry I’ve noticed that you can create a videogame with a great story, stunning graphics, and gripping game play, but if the player must play alone, the game won’t do nearly as well as it could. Games that allow a high level of social interaction over the internet have all but killed all of those old games that were first developed for loner geeks. Thus, the game that makes the most money is World of Warcraft. Even though the graphics aren’t as sharp as they could be and the game play doesn’t force you to pump adrenaline, the player’s desire for social interaction is satisfied, and that’s more important than every other trait a game can have.
Similarly, we are fast approaching a world where “going to the movies” won’t provide a richer experience than our home theater. Yet people will still go. They’ll still pay through the nose for popcorn. Why? Because when you go to the movie, you’re enjoying it with others. You’re becoming a part of a community.
Which brings me to books. Some books sell because hundreds of thousands of copies have already sold. In short, the reader isn’t reading for enjoyment, he’s being initiated into the community of people who have read and enjoyed that book—whether it be Lord of the Rings, The Firm, Bridges of Madison County or whatever. These books become runaway hits.
But have you ever noticed how most of these tremendously popular books answer a protagonist’s need for companionship? In Lord of the Rings, Bilbo and Frodo are aging bachelors whose solitary lives are lifted and take on new significance when they suddenly join a group of adventurers. In Bridges of Madison County, two very lonely people find and fulfill one another.
This pattern of a lonely person becoming part of a bigger world repeats itself over and over again in most popular of literature. Whether you’re writing a story of an adventurer, a young girl moving to a new town, a lawyer who gets a new job at a firm, a boy going to a magic school, or two desperate people who just happen to cling to one another—you as a writer must seek to fulfill your readers’ need to feel loved and accepted.
If you handle that job well, then your book might indeed become a runaway bestseller, and you just might find a vast community developing around your work, in the way that writers like Rowling, Meyer, Grisham and Brown have done—which will fulfill your reader’s needs for a community even better.
So look at the manuscript that you’re writing. Is your protagonist lonely? If not, why not?