We all want to be the author of a story that triggers the explosion of a new fandom. We want our readers to be as excited to read our story as we are to write it. We want to inspire fan-artists to bring our scenes to life in their art. We want to inspire fan-fiction writers to use our characters and settings to sharpen their own skills. There’s nothing quite like seeing a truly satisfied fan-base spring up around a great story.
But what makes that happen? Okay, I’m not going to pretend I understand the magic and mystery of fandoms. I have no idea why fangirls and fanboys do what they do-- OTP’s and headcanons and AU’s and all that—but when I look at the stories that spark these great fandoms, there are elements they all have.
I’ve isolated five for the sake of this post. I’m sure there are other things, but let’s look at these five for now:
1. Vivid Characters
Often really vivid. In fact, I would almost recommend pushing it a little. Lean into your characters’ unique qualities. If you find that magnifying your characters makes them feel flat or fake, deepen them rather than mellowing them out.
Your readers want characters that are so clear in their minds that they can survive outside the context of the book. This is the concept behind the alternative universe thing. If a character is self-contained enough, we can imagine what kind of a high-school student they would be. Think about your characters now. What would be constant if you changed up their situation. That’s what you need to emphasize to make them real. Put them in a completely different role. What doesn’t change? That’s who they actually are. Play it up.
I just wrote a whole post about how essential this is. The ability to amuse people with your writing is a super-power. Don’t overlook it. People remember the humorous parts of stories. They’re going to re-read the funny scenes in your book. Your characters’ quips and clever lines might even enter your readers’ repertoire of in-jokes.
Though fiction can accomplish a great deal more than simple entertainment, readers greatly appreciate being entertained. If a story makes me laugh, that’s a solid sign that the author is succeeding in entertaining me in the way many of us crave the most.
3. A “Wow” Element
I couldn’t think of anything more technical to call this. The “Wow” element is something that sparks a reader’s imagination. It can manifest itself in countless ways—a fascinating culture or event in historical fiction, an amazing species of dragon or a magical object in fantasy—a unique alien race or impressive use of technology in sci-fi. Readers want to be captivated by something interesting. I doubt that I’m the only one who is often attracted to stories initially by something about them that is simply cool.
All of them. If there’s one thing that’s obvious about fandoms it’s that they want “all the feels.” But don’t get hung up on one emotion. Tragedy is great, we love sobbing. But nobody really wants to cry for the entire book—in fact, I doubt that it would be physically possible. We want to feel rage, jealousy, delight, terror, embarrassment, wonder, curiosity, satisfaction…on and on it goes. If we don’t get the whole ride, we feel kind of cheated.
I’m not that great with this one sometimes, I’ll admit. I get pretty caught up in the intricate workings of my plot and sometimes forget that, though a complex sound plot is a good thing, nothing can beat a story that makes you feel things. All these emotional ups and downs connect a reader with a character and make them care about what happens next.
Originality is so sought-after and so elusive. It’s hard to measure and define—and probably impossible to teach. I suppose there’s really nothing original under the sun, and yet everyone knows a rip-off when they see one. Some new authors obsess so much over originality that they paralyze themselves for fear of doing something that’s been done before. Still others seem to make no attempt and cut and paste nearly to the point of plagiarism.
I think the key to originality is a well-exercised imagination. Don’t be afraid to play with an idea in your head. Keep your possibilities open. Try putting that spin or this twist on what you’ve got. Mix, match and crossbreed those wild ideas in your head. After all, isn’t that the fun part?