Sunday, January 13, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Understand Your Reader’s Psychology

As I hinted about last week, Madeleine L’Engle is walking a tricky line with “A Wrinkle in Time”: I think it’s fair to say that she’s primarily writing for tween girls: her heroine is a tween girl, and therefore that’s who her book is going to be primarily marketed towards, so that’s who she must satisfy first and foremost. But she’s also ambitious enough to try to write a book that can be enjoyed by all readers, male and female, of every age, albeit in slightly different ways than the way tween girls will enjoy it.

Most readers of every age like this novel, but none bond with it as tightly as tween girls do. Partly, this is because they most identify with the heroine, but partly it is because it is keyed into their hopes, needs, and fears.

Meg has lost her father. He disappeared two years ago, after leaving the vague sense that he might be going on a government mission. Everyone assumes that he’s left Meg’s mother for a younger woman, and Meg swears this isn’t true, but doesn’t seem entirely sure. She’ll soon discover that her virtuous father has just been kidnapped to another planet and she’ll get the chance to rescue him and bring him home.

Many tween girls who read this book will not have fathers around, either because their father really has abandoned the family, or just gotten amicably divorced, or died, or is serving overseas, etc, and they will naturally identify with Meg’s loss and cheer for her wish-fulfillment triumph in reuniting her family.

But the genius of the story is that all tween girls, even those for whom dad is in the next room, feel that they have lost their fathers, to a certain extent. Puberty complicates things, and a growing sense of the world outside has given them a new sense of perspective, allowing them to see for the first time that their father was never the masculine ideal he once seemed to be.

In order to travel to her scientist father, Meg must learn to understand big scientific concepts and in order to rescue him from an evil mind-warping creature, she must learn to be her best self. She is, of course, getting her father back in the way many girls get their father back, by learning and maturing until they’re past their estrangement. For Meg, that takes one night. For the reader, it may take much longer, or may never happen. When Meg gets her father back, all tween girls, to a certain extent, will wish they could be her.

Drama is how it is, genre is how it feels. The key to writing a beloved book is to understand, personify and magnify your target reader’s hopes, dreams and fears. Make their biggest fear manifest and then let them see their fondest wish come true. That’s what this book does.

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