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A powerful novel challenges the reader’s identity

11 February 2012

From bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

I’m going to encourage you to learn to do your own audience analysis. Why? Because if you do, you might well begin to see things that others have missed.

Here is a list of the 20 bestselling novels of all time. The information comes from Wikipedia, is dated just a bit, and the list is obviously wrong.

. . . .

But I’m not going to correct this list, because the truth is that I want to talk about more than just Harry Potter. Oh, and Twilight should be on here, too.

Title Author

A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens

The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien

And Then There Were None Agatha Christie

The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

She H. Rider Haggard

The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger

The Alchemist Paulo Coelho

The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown

The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco

Harry Potter / Deathly Hallows J.K. Rowling

Jonathon Livingston Seagull Richard Bach

To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee

Valley of the Dolls Jacqueline Susann

Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell

One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel García Márquez

The Godfather Mario Puzo

Jaws Peter Benchley

Shōgun James Clavell

The Pillars of the Earth Ken Follett

Perfume Patrick Süskind

The Horse Whisperer Nicholas Evans

Now, given this list, I look for patterns in order to determine the elements that make a bestseller.


Let’s start with the settings. How many of the books distance the reader from current time and space?

You’ll notice that the first book on our list takes place six decades before the readers of the 1860s were around. Most of the readers wouldn’t have been alive. It would be like me writing about JFK. Also, the book is set in two countries – England and France. In other words, no matter where you were living, the book offered some escape from the contemporary setting.

As you scroll through the list, you’ll notice that about 35% of the novels are set in complete fantasy worlds. Most of the rest had historical ties. In each case where the novel doesn’t distance the reader from the modern world, most of the novels take you someplace that you would like to go – a seaside resort, an island retreat, and so on.

So offering your reader escape seems to be something that most bestsellers have in common both in books and in movies. In Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Zuckerman says you should look to set your tale in places where the reader might want to go – exotic destinations like New York, Bombay, and London abound.

But what if you don’t want to set your book in one of those places? That’s all right, too. You can still entice your reader into your setting. For example, if I were setting a novel in Rigby, Idaho I might consider talking about the things that make Rigby one of the great destinations in the world – clear sunny skies, neighbors with high values, wild elk bedding down on the banks of the Snake River, and so on.

This is a key even in my genre of fantasy. Tolkien sold a lot of books, but one of the real reasons why is that Middle Earth is a great place to be. The Shire with its gentle Hobbits, its bounteous gardens and its innocence is a great place to go if you want to get away from real-world stress.

. . . .


Well, given this list, take a look at the characters. What is the age and sex of each protagonist? Ninety percent of these novels seem to be aimed primarily at men. Why is that? Don’t women read? Of course. (I’ll have a long section on why this historical bias exists later.)

. . . .


After you study the characters, move on to conflicts. I like to take each major character in turn and study each of his or her conflicts. I label them as primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on.

So the next question is a bit tougher. How important to the reader will that conflict be? For example, when A Tale of Two Cities was written, the entire world was still reeling from the after-effects of the French Revolution. British nobility – indeed leaders around the entire world – were afraid of losing their heads, so they began to vie to for the title of “most virtuous leader alive today.”

. . . .

We can see that trend throughout the list. Is Lord of the Rings really just escapism? I don’t think so. As a teenager I clearly believed that the ring of power was a metaphor for the nuclear bomb. Tolkien denies it, but the bulk of the novel was written in the post-war era after WWII. If nothing else, I found myself identifying strongly with the inconsequential hobbits who were trying to rid the world of an item that could destroy the planet.

How important is it to you to know how the mob works today? When The Godfather came out, most people were totally ignorant at how powerful organized crime was. Today we’re better educated, but I think that most people would be shocked at just how corrupt politics has become.

So study the conflicts.

One screenwriting doctor claims that in every great story, there is a question about the character’s identity at its heart. Who am I? Who do others think that I am? This might seem like a tertiary conflict in many of these stories, but I think you’ll find that it is a common thread.

In short, pay attention to even the smallest conflicts in the tale.

Very often, a powerful novel doesn’t just challenge the protagonist’s identity, it challenges the reader’s identity, too.

. . . .


Emotional markers are big in Hollywood, but the list of markers isn’t as helpful as it could be. There are commonalities in stories that go beyond the emotional tags, and I’m going to label them as “themes.”

I’ve noticed that tales about character growth tend to be more satisfying than those that are not. So I add that into my mix of things to look for.

Similarly, many readers respond well to novels about friendship – gaining and keeping friends. If you look at the “top television shows of all time” you’ll see that many of them – shows like “Cheers,” “M.A.S.H.,” “Seinfeld,” “I Love Lucy,” “Happy Days,” and so on all revolved around a small cluster of friends and cohorts.

Link to the rest at David Farland

David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

2 Comments to “A powerful novel challenges the reader’s identity”

  1. I have nothing against any of those books. I admire many of them….

    But I have to ask people to stop and think: How many of those books are your favorite all time book? (Favorite all time movie based on a book doesn’t count, btw, unless you want to consider only the movie and not the book.) How many of them have you even read?

    The books which touched me and changed my life are not on that list.

    I encourage writers to do what Dave Farland says — but do it with your own top twenty. Because, imho, if you really want to touch a life, you need to get away from the lowest common denominators and get specific.

    • I had the same thought. Also why is he only including in this notion of changing someone’s worldview “powerful novels”? On valentine’s my blog was about how I learned what homosexuality was from a fantasy book, and how the way it was presented there shaped my view of it to be…just a non-issue for me. But I wouldn’t call it a “powerful” book, I mean it was junior high fantasy angst fluff reading by these standards, but yet it had a very direct impact on my FOR LIFE. It goes back to something my writing mentor used to say, “you never know who you’re going to touch, or how, or with what result.”

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