By: Kim Krisco
Like most writers, I have honed my writing skills by reading countless books, attending workshops, and joining writer’s groups – all with one goal: to get published. Then it happened, a London publisher accepted one of my novels. It wasn’t long after I popped a celebratory champagne cork that I recognized that I now had a different goal – one I should have had from the start . . . writing stories that keep readers coming back for more. These two goals are similar, differing primarily regarding where to put your emphasis and attention as you write.
I hoped that there was one book or workshop that addressed reader loyalty. And while I found that many offerings touched on reader loyalty, no single article, book, or workshop focused on this topic. However, pieced together some of the best advice and condensed it to three attributes that garner reader loyalty:
As we explore these you will likely discover that you currently employ some or all of these in your stories. Congratulations! Now . . . if you can infuse your stories with all three attributes consciously and intentionally, your storytelling will become even more masterful.
A subplot is a side story that runs parallel to the main plot, and it often involves a secondary character who plays a minor role in the main story. Subplots not only add richness and nuance to your tale but become a device for sharing background about your main protagonist that might otherwise come off as clumsy and contrived if you did it within the main story. In the Harry Potter anthology, a ripe example is Harry’s aunt and uncle, who believe Harry’s powers are evil. They enrich the “good versus evil” battle that is the central theme and reveal important character traits in Harry that come into play later in the story.
My primary protagonist, Tessa Wiggins, has reoccurring subplots that follow her through my novels: crushing guilt for having abandoned her little sister in an orphan asylum, an on-again/off-again love affair with Clark Button, and an ever-present belief she is ‘never good enough.’ Each story also introduces a new, unique subplot. For example, in The Magnificent Madness of Tessa Wiggins, she struggles to find ways to repay the kindness of her childhood friend Sherlock Holmes. Of course, even the best subplot won’t be enough if you don’t have a protagonist that readers learn to love.
One of the reasons we follow a particular author is that we become invested in one specific character – usually the primary protagonist. Think Mildred Wirt Benson’s Nancy Drew, or Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (the most popular fictional character of all time). People tend to follow characters rather than authors, so how do you write characters that readers will invest in?
The formula, while logical, is multifaceted. People identify with characters who are likeable, are in jeopardy, flawed, vulnerable, courageous, and (here’s a big one) get in touch with their own power. The first five attributes are familiar, but the last is often glossed over or simply chalked up to “agency.” But characters who are or get in touch with their own power is more significant.
To oversimply, the act of claiming personal power requires overcoming character defects such as crippling low self-esteem, overpowering ego, crushing fear(s), etc. While readers do not necessarily possess these character defects in the extreme, everyone is familiar with them to some degree because it shows up in negative self-talk. This internal battle within your protagonist is, in some ways, the actual conflict that takes place within a story. The proof that your hero has won this battle comes in the climax when they risk it all to achieve the goal motivating their actions from the start.
All these characteristics come together for me in my protagonist Tessa Wiggins, a turn of the twentieth-century Irish lass who grew up in the impoverished, crime-ridden borough of Spitalfields in London’s East Side. With that beginning, it is easy for me to create sympathy for Tessa, who struggles against all odds to become a hero with which everyone can identify.
The final attribute needed to gain reader loyalty, if mentioned at all, is usually done as an aside; but I believe it may be most important.
Great authors had great themes that resonated with the times they wrote. Charles Dickens’ themes were the misery of the proletarian classes and the exploitation of child labor coming into the public’s consciousness during the industrial revolution. Jane Austen’s works revolved around the theme of self-improvement through courageous self-examination and education. Her novels were written when women were beginning to stand up to the patriarchy that had been smothering them for centuries.
Let me propose that relevant and timely themes woven within the core story are one of the primary things that engages and maintains loyal readers. Like the ones noted above, the themes were relevant in their time, but may or may not resonate with today’s readers. My chosen themes are gender equality (particularly women’s rights) and environmental sustainability. I hope we can agree that these are relevant today.
The wonderful thing is that consciously and intentionally employing relevant themes help shape your story in new and surprising ways. For example, my commitment to building my stories around women’s rights and environmental sustainability led me to research Celtic history because the Celts enjoyed a harmony between the roles and rights or men and women that is not based upon the superiority of one sex over another. In the world of the Celts, women were warriors, poets, and even Druids — the latter being more powerful than any monarch. While I might have written stories set in the time of the Celts, it was more impactful to bring the Celtic ethics and beliefs into a more modern era to draw a sharper contrast. I picked the post-WWI period because women’s suffrage was taking root then.
My last three novels: Irregular Lives, The Celtic Phoenix, and The Magnificent Madness of Tessa Wiggins, roll out chronologically as Tessa grows from a London street urchin into a powerful Celtic woman and Druid priestess. Within these three stories, readers are introduced to the Celtic ethos, and through magical realism, readers meet a diverse cadre of formidable women. Not all of them are good or perfect, but all are powerful in their own way. I hope that the next century will be one in which men and women no longer need to indulge in an unwholesome gender rivalry that has undermined all of us for centuries.
In conclusion, nothing offered here is meant to discount the importance of a great story or well-crafted prose, but rather point toward the kind of fiction that keeps readers coming back for more: enriching subplots, characters that readers relate to, and highly relevant themes. Keeping all those literary balls in the air is what makes writing so challenging and rewarding.
Kim Krisco is the author of four novels: Sherlock Holmes—The Golden Years, Irregular Lives: The Untold Story of Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, and The Celtic Phoenix— published by MX Publishing in London. His latest release, The Magnificent Madness of Tessa Wiggins, features a formidable 1920’s Irish lass from the London slums who strives to become a Druid priestess.
Prior to writing full-time, Kim served as a consultant, trainer, and coach for business and non-profit organizations and their leaders. You can find out more about Kim and his books on his website.
He and his wife, Sararose Ferguson, live in the Rocky Mountains in tiny homes that they built themselves on the North Fork of the Purgatory River. Kim likes to say that “living on the Purgatory River may not be heaven, but it’s a writer’s paradise.”