Let’s face it: these days, nobody really cares about the prose. It’s a hard fact, but they don’t. They want something easy and light to read before bed, not Shakespearean-like dialogue that will leave their head spinning (especially if it’s a small font).
Say what you want about things like Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, and A Song of Ice and Fire, but they all have something in common: they writers have created very vivid, very real worlds. (Please note that I did not say ‘original’ or ‘likeable’.)
You not only feel for the characters, but you feel the love that they were written with. They can feel as real to you as the last person you spoke to. Their creators know everything about them from their favourite colour to how they pick their cuticles when they’re nervous. If the writer is good—and not just in it for the kitsch or the novelty—the character will even have their own unique way of speaking. You can instantly read something and think, ‘That sounds just like something [insert name here] would say!’ much like you would with your best friend.
I’m not saying every writer doesn’t write with love and compassion—although we’re both aware that there are some out there that do churn out novels with no love and compassion at all—but with these novels, they don’t just feel real to the writer, but to the reader as well. We each see a little bit of ourselves in one of the characters. Me? I always had a soft spot for Hermione, and I loved it when she punched Draco. Or maybe we find one of the characters insanely attractive. I was always a Jacob girl myself; Edward was far too brooding and stalker-like to me.
I read the Twilight books when I was in a dark place; I was lost, lonely, had no idea what I was doing with my life. They offered me an escape. I could envision myself running away, far into the woods with Jacob; lying on his warm, muscly body, or happily baking a cake then munching away on it together. And that’s the other thing that all of the novels I’ve mentioned above have in common: escapism. None of them are really set in the real world. Westeros is most definitely fictional, although some of its themes are very real. Twilight may be set in a real town, but, unfortunately, vampires and werewolves are not. And Fifty Shades of Grey is set in a real place, but most of us will never be that adventurous in the bedroom, or have the opportunity to meet a millionaire, let alone have passionate sex with one.
Whilst I have only read four pages of Fifty Shades of Grey and have no desire to read anymore, having been told about the story and followed the film, I can see why people are attracted to it. It’s as much about escapism as any fantasy novel: a hot millionaire that’s even willing to have sex with you when you’re on your period? That’s about as likely to happen as getting an invitation to Hogwarts. The plots are unrealistic but the characters stuck in a rut and desperate to get out are something we can all relate to.
Next time you sit down to write your great novel, remember this: it’s not just about a great story. You can have the best plot in the world, but if you characters are flat and nobody believes the world it’s set in, they’re not going to care. But if they truly connect with—and care about—the people that you’ve created, then you’re already on to something magical.
The original version of this article was published in Heart of Glass.