Give Readers What They Need, Not Just What They Want

January 8, 2024

If you’ve read widely, you’ve visited many intriguing places. You’ve traveled with a hobbit who learns to embrace his Tookish side and saves his friends. You’ve walked beside a Victorian woman through a series of disastrous marriage proposals and scandals that teach her to look past first impressions. You’ve wandered down English lanes and into dragon dens, returning home with the resolve to be kind, brave, and independent so that maybe you’ll be a catalyst for change.


But you’ve also stumbled into pits that have stolen from you. Romances where perfect partners obsessed over each other and made you wonder when your own love interest would sweep you off your feet. Cities where protagonists with easy jobs, effortless relationships, and money to spare are rewarded for being self-centered, vindictive, and cruel. These settings dimmed the light you carried in and drove you to seek refuge from the everyday struggles you face. 


Though stories are imaginary, they have an incredible ability to encourage readers to either engage deeply with the real world, or search for an escape. As writers, our responsibility is to be intentional about the reactions we provoke and instead fill readers up. Only when they’re overflowing with hope can they pour themselves into others. To leave them in a better state than you found them, you need to stir up a special sort of longing.


What Is Wish Fulfillment, and What Does It Cost?

Homesickness and emptiness are cousins, and drawing distinctions between the two may seem like splitting hairs. But the former is edifying, whereas the latter is not. And the presence of one versus the other depends on the author’s focus: attributing hope to a transcendent source creates stories that resonate. Attributing hope to temporal pleasure leaves readers hollow.


Wish fulfillment, as delightful as it may sound, drains the life out of readers. If they want romance, they can jump into the skin of a nondescript heroine who an assortment of supernatural beings fight over (aka Twilight). If they want to vicariously vent anger, they can join antiheroes wreaking vengeance through elaborate schemes and scathing one-liners. If they want to be justified in hating people with opposing worldviews, they can watch protagonists conquer demonized versions of their enemies in God’s Not Dead. Because these stories don’t contain excessive vice, they seem harmless. But readers can quickly become addicted.


When they close the book or turn off the TV, they have to return to a reality where no one cares about their emotions and opinions, they’re lonely, and God doesn’t answer prayers in a direct, timely manner. While a fluffy book might be a fun reprieve, the side effects will often outweigh the benefits. Habitually consuming wish fulfillment can breed discontent and bitterness, deteriorating a person’s mental health. 


Nothing is inherently wrong with giving characters superpowers, enviable skills, or an aura of coolness. Readers should enjoy cheering for and embarking on adventures with a book’s cast. The relationships should be relatable and the denouement gratifying. So what does define the difference between fiction that indulges readers, and fiction that serves readers?


Ultimately, the amount of growth the protagonist undergoes and the consequences she receives when she makes mistakes.


How Do You Identify What Readers Need?

Outside of genre perimeters, an author can’t predict the expectations and background an individual reader is bringing to a book. However, the central character arc can reveal who the story may connect with and what truths they need to encounter.


For example, in Chris Fabry’s The Promise of Jesse Woods, Matt has a savior complex. He believes that pulling lost souls out of the ditch is a Christian’s duty. If wish fulfillment was Fabry’s goal, he would have allowed Matt to succeed at rescuing Jesse from a “disastrous” future and marry her. But that would have skewed Matt’s flaw and the outcome to imply that he was in control instead of God.


God’s Not Dead falls into this trap. After a college professor ostracizes the protagonist for his convictions, he decides to stand up and manages to not only gain new friends but also convince the entire class to profess faith. The antagonist even accepts Christ before death, and the church takes care of a daughter who was thrown out of her home for becoming a Christian. All of the main characters obtain victories that people in similar situations rarely see.


Unlike God’s Not Dead, The Promise of Jesse Woods puts Matt through the wringer to prove he isn’t a savior—he’s just a man who needs to trust God. His best friend marries (of all people) a guy who used to be a bully, and Matt returns home, his mission failed. This is a difficult yet inspiring lesson because it demonstrates that God’s ways are higher.


If your character’s need is unclear, analyze his problems. Perhaps he’s reluctant to act in a leadership role because he misguided a team in the past. What’s the first—and easiest—solution he’ll gravitate to? Perhaps it’s avoidance. If he never takes charge, he can’t be held responsible for the results. Or he might strive for perfection. If he works hard enough, he’ll never mess up again. The true answer is likely far outside his radar and will reflect how he needs to mature. Don’t hold his hand as you nudge him toward it. 


When he reaches his final destination, he’ll be a different person—someone uniquely positioned to show readers their need. But that doesn’t mean the scene requires blue skies and sunshine. Rain and thunder can be equally, and often more, effective.


Crafting Bittersweet Endings

Since human souls are designed for communion with their Creator, anything less won’t satisfy. Not high-tech weaponry, swoony romances, nor indomitable wit. If a story relies on superficial elements to bring joy, readers will sense something is missing.


The Hobbit includes many iconic moments, and being hand-selected by a wizard to go on a quest might seem like obvious wish fulfillment. But as Bilbo transforms from a homebody into a courageous, sword-waving burglar, the wonder of meeting elves and witnessing magic is tinged with the sadness of burying his dwarven friends under the Misty Mountains. His hardships remind us of the brokenness that will one day be healed.


Everything in Bilbo’s story turned out for the best—but not everything turned out fair. The same is true for Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, the Wingfeather saga, and other enduring classics. A story that exists to glut readers’ desires will erase all injustices and imbalances, whereas a homesick story will awaken a yearning for the wholeness that can only be gained through Christ. 


Happy Endings

A bittersweet ending, however, isn’t necessarily tragic. The character should still reach his goal. You don’t have to write a Hamlet or Othello for readers to hope in the resurrection. Instead, you can achieve bittersweetness by leaving a thread incomplete. An estranged relationship is never mended, the protagonist doesn’t have a chance to say goodbye to her dying friend, or the town is cleaning up debris from a recent natural disaster. To Be Continued is stamped on that part. Although the story ends with positive developments, some of the losses are irreversible


In the conclusion to Scorpio Races, the main characters fall in love, win the race, and get to stay on their home island. But Puck’s family fractures because her brother is going away. Sean’s horse Corr will never race again. And multiple characters perished throughout the competition. The circumstances improved, but not without casualties. 


Unresolved issues mirror the internal conflict between our fallenness and the Holy Spirit’s work in us. We live in the now-not-yet. When we portray that in tandem with the beauty that remains imbedded in the world, our stories will carry echoes of God’s promises.


Pointing to Eternity

We can’t predict the full impact of our stories. C.S. Lewis and Tolkien couldn’t have foreseen that theirs would last decades. They didn’t follow trends to chase short-term fame, nor did they fabricate idealized versions of reality. Instead, they spoke of a future they’d glimpsed on the horizon of their long walk with God, foreshadowing a far country where pain will be wiped away. Millions have lit their own caves and valleys with these sparks of eternity. 


When you give readers the comfort, the courage, or the conviction they need, you’ll illuminate lives too.

1 Comment

  1. John M. Olsen

    I think this is a wonderful parallel to story structure where the character gets what they need instead of what they want at the story’s end. Doing the same for a reader makes perfect sense.


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