October 19, 2020
Recently, I have gotten into copywriting. The world of marketing is one I avoided for awhile—I blame Arthur Miller—yet I cannot deny that two of my passions are writing and rhetoric, and what is copywriting but a synthesis of these two?
Still, the more I delved into the tricks of the trade, the more parallels I began to see between copywriting and character development in fiction. Today I want to explore the comparisons, and present you—whether you are a creative or content writer—with lessons from the other side.
Copywriting often begins with a good headline. So here is a headline for my theoretical course on copywriting.
Ultimate Job Security Can be Yours When you Can Sell Anything in Just 2 Steps
Is this an effective headline? You are the judge of that, but this headline accomplishes 2 things. First is the benefit, what you can get out of reading my copy. Second is the path. It’s not an empty promise that job security can be yours: with my assistance, the path to job security will open up to you.
Assistance on a Path to a Benefit (or Boon).
Does this ring any Campbells?
An extremely Brief Overview of Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell is a mythologist who cemented his legacy by providing writers with the ultimate cheat sheet. According to Campbell, and many, all narratives follow the same path: the Hero’s Journey.
We can certainly poke holes in his theory, but for our purposes, understanding this fundamental plot structure can help us understand character development.
The Hero’s Journey divides a story into concrete stages. Our hero begins in the “ordinary world” and, with the help of a guide (real or metaphorical) ventures into the “other world” (again, real or metaphorical). Here, they overcome some trials, face their weaknesses, are transformed, and return to the ordinary world a changed person.
Let’s use a simple example. Say there is a young man, let’s call him Luke. Luke lives a boring life, away from the concerns of the wider world. Maybe he’s some kind of farmhand. He dreams of going away, of bigger things, but somehow he knows this is just a dream. But then, the big conflict comes to him, and he is told he has to go help solve the big conflict, but it’s too big for him so he runs away, only to find his home and family destroyed by the conflict. With an old wise mentor as his guide, he sets off on a path of trials: he rescues a princess, loses his guide, destroys the seemingly big threat, escapes danger, meets a new old wise guide, confronts his unknown past, runs away from it, learns that running away isn’t the best solution and confronts his foes head-on; transformed from the young man who always wanted to run away into a wise compassionate man whose implacability rescues his lost father. In the end, he and his friends destroy the real threat and stop the conflict.
I don’t know, maybe someone should make a movie or three about this.
Or how about the story of a poor boy who dreams of a life with a rich girl, but knows it cannot happen. Yet, one day he saves a wealthy man’s life, who helps him on the road to fame and power. He is now beloved, but not by the one woman that matters, who is now married to another man. In a moment of desperation, he tries to throw everything away to be with her, but an accident leads to him being shot in his pool.
Both Luke Skywalker and Jay Gatsby fit into the mould of the Hero’s Journey, even if the former follows the path more closely and the latter isn’t granted his return. But Campbell’s model doesn’t only help us deconstruct the plot of these stories, but the characters themselves. If we look beyond the plot, we see that the journey is about a character’s internal as well as (sometimes) external transformation. This transformation can be represented by the two words:
Whether you are writing a 1-page ad or a 500-page novel, if these two pillars are not part of your writing, your reader will likely lose interest in your work.
In simplest terms, benefits are what the customer receives. This, however, is misleading. The benefit of buying the newest iPhone is not to have a sleek new device. You are not being sold an iPhone: you are being sold the ability to take better photos than ever before, read text on a perfectly designed screen, save time and be better organized. Deeper still, you buy the newest iPhone at the time of launch if you want to feel like the world hasn’t left you behind, and that you are ahead of the game. The tech-specs are fine, the abilities to do x, y, and z are enticing, but the true benefit being sold to you is to quell the fear that you can’t keep up in this fast-paced world.
In copywriting, the open secret to success is to understand your demographics’ desires and fears. Eros and Thanatos, those Freudian drivers of our id, our unconscious mind—if you can tap into this, you are halfway to being able to sell anything to anyone.
My ah-ha moment was realizing that the same tricks to ensuring a customer buys what you are selling apply to ensuring your reader invests in your character, and will follow them through however many pages you wish. When copywriting, you must appeal to your reader’s desires and fears; in fiction, we call this want and need.
In Campbell’s model, a want coincides with “Crossing the First Threshold”. The Hero has been called to action (a term shared by Campbell and copywriters), refused the call, but is now driven by a want—or desire—to achieve something.
But a character’s ‘want’ is much like buying an iPhone to take nice pictures. It makes sense, but if you, the author, want to create a character that will truly resonate, your want must lead into an impactful need. The need typically occurs around “Apotheosis”: a quiet moment where the hero confronts their weaknesses and discovers what is truly important. This moment also often coincides with the hero at their lowest point, in a moment of internal fear.
For a character to receive or fail at the “ultimate boon” as Campbell calls it, and for that boon to resonate with your reader, your reader must understand your character’s the desires and fears that drive your character forward.
Another lesson in advertising is that you don’t want your customer to have to think about how to attain the benefit you are promising. Remember, we are in the world of the unconscious where everything is driven by desires and fears. Therefore, you, the copywriter, must provide a path for the reader. What steps must the reader take? Sometimes, there is only one external step (“buy our new thing!”), but it is not always that straightforward. Sometimes you need your reader to read beyond the headline, subscribe to a newsletter, attend a free webinar, and finally purchase a new thing. If this is the case, each stage must be presented in a clear and ordered path to remove any barriers between the reader and their benefit. And you, the writer, must act as their mentor—their Obi Wan or Dan Cody—guiding them down the path to their benefit.
Unlike copy, a story does not have to be linear. That being said, when we are looking at a character’s development, there should be a clear path for the reader to follow. Learning about a character’s backstory, deepest desires, fears, and resolve on page 1 would be akin to landing on a website only to be flooded with five pop-ups directing you to take five different steps. For a reader to resonate with your character, we must come to understand them at whatever stage we are introduced to them.
There is a reason why bildungsroman novels were so popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These stories, in a linear manner, take the reader through the hero’s transition from innocence to experience. We read David Copperfield or Jane Eyre grow from children to adults, and we follow their desires and fears as they are subjected to the goods and evils in the world. Compare this to Gatsby’s development in The Great Gatsby. Because Gatsby is not our narrator, and because the first half of the novel rests on the conceit of shrouding him in mystery, we see Gatsby’s development out of order. Retrospectively we can say that Gatsby is a well-developed character, but while reading the novel, we learn about Gatsby’s success and enterprises well before his great desire (Daisy) and his fear (not being worthy of Daisy).
There is nothing wrong with telling a story out of order, but oftentimes, this plot trick comes at the expense of character development. It is why I find so many Christopher Nolan films irksome.
As with advertising, regardless of how many twists and turns your path to the benefit has, ensure that the reader has access to the path, by which I mean, is quickly made aware of why they should care about your hero, and why they should follow them down the path of your story.
When writing fiction, your protagonist must be like a piece of well-written copy: ordered, intentional, and accessible. Think of your favourite characters in novels: they are your favourite because they linger in the mind. While reading, you may have stopped seeing them as words on a page, but as vivid people. Novels and advertisers alike strive to create something that will linger in the readers’ minds. In advertising, you are the “hero” traveling the path towards your ultimate boon, the satisfaction of a desire or quenching of a fear. In fiction, you read about others’ journeys down similar paths, connecting with them because you too know what it is like to be driven by desire or fear.
If you are writing copy or fiction, and you do not feel that you are speaking to your readers’ desires or fears—
If you are writing copy or fiction, and you do not feel that your reader can follow the your path—
It is time for revisions.
Hopefully, this gave you another tool to play with while writing.
Thanks for reading.