Your fiction is about your character, not your genre

When you ask the question ‘what is this book about?’ you may get this kind of non-answer: It’s a hard-boiled detective novel. It’s a contemporary story of modern malaise.  No, no, no! Those answers are an indicator of genre or category. Very few readers are looking for just-anything in a certain category. Fiction, famously, is about folks. Your lead character, for one.

Instead, a good answer renames the main character with an adjective-and-noun combo, and then tells about the problem he faces. A dragon private investigator has to solve a mystery. A dull businessman awakens to find he’s become a giant cockroach. That’s how you hook the reader.

You may say, but what if the seeking reader absolutely dislikes private investigators who are dragons? Wouldn’t it be better to kind of sneak up on him with the dragon thing? No. How many books have you purchased just because they were allegedly about a hard-boiled detective or about modern malaise? Are you an enthusiastic modern malaise reader? I doubt it. When folks ask what a book is about, they are really asking WHO the book is about, what sort of entity is he, and what is his problem.

Giving a name is not enough. We may all know who Scarlett O’Hara and Michael Corleone are, but we don’t have a clue about your Bill Wilson or Amanda Gracenote. Tell who they are: a noun. Is your lead a beggar, thief, cook, maidservant, swordsman or serial killer? Make a short list of one-noun descriptions of who your character IS, in this particular story.

Next, pick an unexpected adjective. Some adjectives aren’t worth using. If your swordsman is strong or brave, that’s usually understood. Most heroines of romance novels are beautiful or at least pretty. Now, if you have a cowardly swordsman or a homely romantic heroine— really homely, not some girl who thinks she’s homely because she weighs a bit too much due to her enormous boobs— this is unexpected and will arouse curiosity.

Then, mention a problem. It doesn’t have to be the biggest problem, or the one that leads to the final confrontation. Best is something that happens near the beginning and is a launch-point into the rest of the story. You don’t want to use something that’s a spoiler, but you do want to mention something juicy— something perhaps a little different that could catch a reader’s interest.

Now, here is a hint: if your adjective-noun description is really wild— like the dragon detective— the problem can be more hum-drum— solve a mystery, like detectives do all the time. If your adjective-noun is kind of commonplace— a dull businessman— the problem has to have a real kick to it. Like becoming a cockroach. In fact, if both parts of your descriptive sentence are wild— a dragon detective who wakes up as a cockroach— that’s probably a bit too wild for the reader to relate to.

The biggest thing an author can do for a story is come up with a good one-sentence description that’s a hoot. Try it— an adjective-noun to describe the Lead, and a brief description of the/a problem that the Lead has to deal with. Remember when writing it— less is more. If you churn out something that’s 37 words long and has 8 adjectives when 1 would do, start over.

Once you have a good one-sentence description, use it everywhere. Incorporate it into your book blurb. When sharing the link to your book online, always add your one-sentence description. Use it in query letters. For writing success as an indie or traditionally published writer, these will be the most important words you write.



2 thoughts on “Your fiction is about your character, not your genre

  1. When you mentioned a homely romantic heroine I immediately thought of Plain Jane Eyre. Part of the novel’s success and staying power as a classic is Jane’s non-conformist appearance as well as her attitude.

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