12.34: Fulfilling the Reader’s Fantasy, with Brian McClellan

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard

Brian McClellan joins us for a discussion on fulfilling the promises we make to our readers—specifically the genre-specific promises made by the simple fact of where the book is shelved.

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Write your next story in a time period that you haven’t written before. Make up the facts if you want to.

7 thoughts on “12.34: Fulfilling the Reader’s Fantasy, with Brian McClellan”

  1. The entire episode was great, but that ending left me pondering the effect of writing for a solid thirty minutes. Thank you for the incredible story, Mr. Sanderson!

  2. See, I don’t use ‘escapism’ and ‘reader-insertion’ interchangeably as it seems to be implied here. So my problem with one doesn’t extend to the other.

    To me, escapism is nothing more than a temporary distraction from our circumstances. Any form of entertainment serves this purpose and is a healthy way to decompress and cope with the strains or monotony of everyday life.

    Whereas, self-insertion or reader-insertion is an embellishment of one’s wish-fulfillment needs to the extent that it becomes a target for parodies. This garners a lot of criticism because the reader is encouraged to become an active participant in the story rather than a bystander, which not only interferes with the ability to suspend disbelief (2nd person narration is unpopular for this reason, after all) but often results in substandard quality material in an effort to manufacture these results.

    The protagonist tends to be an archetypal Mary Sue/Gary Stu who lacks any meaningful vices or characteristics and serves as an idealized avatar for the reader. The storyline often feels generic with contrived conflicts that seem to be engineered strictly to emphasize the protagonist’s perfection. And character relationships throughout the story suffer because every secondary character unrealistically fancies, wants to emulate, or begrudgingly respects the protagonist. Fanfiction is an example of this.

    So it’s the reader-insertion cliches that trouble me rather than the escapism. I don’t want to pretend that I’m a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle karote-chopping the Foot clan. I want to experience that sense of wonder the way you would while visiting an exotic location. I want to watch the Gettysburg battle unfold and imagine what some of those poor men experienced, I don’t want to participate in it as a generic, underdeveloped caricature of some unsung, forgotten hero. And that’s the difference to me. Escapism allows you to observe and reflect, but reader-insertion tries to force you to pantomime.

    I agree with Brian’s McClellan’s method of disregarding genre tropes when he’s writing a story. If you write with genre expectations in mind, your story may suffer for it because your perspective, as a creator, will be as limited as your reader demographic. You should serve the story before you serve the audience. Don’t worry about dropping easter eggs and throwbacks in there to appease hardcore sci-fi fans, or always providing a happy ending in your romance story. Tell the story that wants to be told. Let the marketers decide where to categorize your story.

    I’m reminded of Piper’s comment that sad endings aren’t favored within the romance genre, but I would argue that the most memorable, classic romance stories that withstood the test of time are those that broke away from genre expectations and concluded unhappily/sadly. (Wuthering Heights, Gone with the wind, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, etc).

    There’s nothing wrong with providing instant gratification to a reader who wants their happy-ending “fix.” But writing specifically to support their addiction might rob you of an opportunity to hint at a deeper theme that might only be served through an unhappy ending. For instance, what if Cinderella realized that the behavior of her wicked stepmother/sisters mirrored the entire aristocracy, and to marry the Prince would be more of the same. Instead, she never presents her glass slipper, and lives out the remainder of her life in obscurity, finally finding happiness when her sisters are married off and her stepmother falls to the rigors of alzheimers. Then, after the estate passes to a male relative some years later, his family discovers the most remarkable glass slipper hidden carefully between the crumbling stones of a dusty tower bedroom…
    But that’s just my opinion.
    Thanks for another interesting podcast :)

  3. Great thoughts and thank you for sharing!

    I agree that romantic tragedies like Romeo and Juliet are wonderful reads as well. I very much enjoy Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk To Remember. Exploring the genre of romantic tragedy and telling a tale that must have an unhappy ending is an equally interesting challenge.

  4. I believe there was a study that came out last year that said people who read more fiction tend to be more empathetic. Yes, you get to go to a new and exciting land, or you get to have certain emotional and relational experiences. But, beyond those things, which are definitely fun, escapism, as it was used in this podcast, allows the reader to walk in someone else’s shoes. Brandon’s story about his mother highlights this. I think this is an important aspect of genre fiction, literary fiction, and creative non-fiction.

  5. Kisses and flintlock charges? Happily Ever After, magic, and big things happening? The wilds of Utah, hosted by the power-packed quartet of Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard, had Brian McClellan drop in for a round-table discussion of how romance and epic fantasy fulfill readers’ fantasies. Promises, promises, made as early as possible! Then they also discussed the common charge that romance, fantasy, and stuff like that is just escapism and wish fulfillment — YES! WE LIKE TEX-MEX, TOO! So, escape with the transcript for a while, and then — write! Available in the archives or over here


    And the world, will be better for this, that one man read a book for an hour… or listened to Writing Excuses for 15 minutes!

  6. I believe that explanation of escapism was the best I have ever heard. It clarified so much for me. Gotta love this podcast. Every episode is great and I always learn something new.

  7. Not at all writing related, but my mother has a German Shepherd named Piper… She’s not the person from Piper’s email (she’s never had hers trained), so just an odd coincidence, but kind of a funny one.

    And anyone who tells me escapist fiction is a bad thing gets sent a link to this (warning may make you cry) : https://youtu.be/NqlBtMoNtko

    Thanks for another great episode, gang!

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