I’ve never appreciated classic literature.
I read Hawthorne and I get bored. I read Austen and I fall asleep. My wife likes Dickens, but I can’t stand it. Ask me who Tiny Tim is, and nine times out of ten I’ll refer you to the obsessive-compulsive ukulele player from the 60s.
Literature snobs think I’m low-brow, and that my modern reading material is hollow. I disagree. A good story is a good story. Any good story can move you … but before it can do that, it has to grab you. It has to pull you into its world, to make you feel at home. (I just don’t feel at home in a Dickens story. They talk funny.)
Different people have different taste in books. But we all like stories that we can imagine ourselves being part of. And we like characters we can relate to.
What that means varies from person to person, but it’s almost always true — relatable stories sell.
Your clients and customers feel the same way. If what you write doesn’t pull them into your story, they’ll run away like they’re escaping a high school summer reading list. In Latin.
Writing copy with character
I ran a post on my blog a few weeks ago on what I call Storyselling, or what sales copy can learn from fiction. It was all about pulling people into your world by telling (true) stories.
See, stories are great marketing devices. They blur the line between entertainment and persuasion. They let readers relate to you and your business on a story level first — and then to see that your products and services are a good match for their needs.
You’re able to show your reader why they should buy instead of telling them. You convey information by allegory, the way humans have done since they had stories to tell.
Stories have a plot, a theme, maybe a dash of symbolism, and all that other good English class stuff.
But what really makes a story sing are great, multi-dimensional characters.
Most of all, a compelling story needs a compelling protagonist, or lead character — someone people want to follow and learn more about. And most of the time, dear online entrepreneur, that protagonist is you.
Five elements of great characters
So let’s get one thing out of the way: None of what follows is about fabricating tales or pretending to be something you’re not. The usual rules still apply in Storyselling.
You need to be authentic, you need to be trustworthy, you need to keep your commitments. Also, your product or service should probably be excellent.
But while you’re at it, go ahead and be authentically trustworthy and reliable the way your best inner protagonist would.
As you read through the following, don’t think, “How can I pretend to be this?” Instead, ask, “How am I this, and how can I bring it out in my writing?”
Got it? Good. Let’s talk about what makes great characters great.
1. Great characters cannot be defined in one sentence
I challenge you to go out and find me someone who can be accurately and completely be described as “the hooker with the heart of gold” or “the all-American hero.” Real people don’t have only one or two attributes that define them.
That gold-hearted hooker? She also plays the guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughan with a seizure disorder. That all-American is into amateur boxing. Both like ER reruns. Both are insecure from time to time.
Thrillers are often filled with paper-thin, one-sentence characters (“the ex-FBI agent bent on revenge”), and they can sometimes get away with it because the plot is compelling enough on its own.
But unless your business is as riveting as a Dan Brown novel, stop being “the SEO specialist” or “the consultant for ex-accountants.” Yes, you can be those things, but don’t end the story there.
It’s great to have a USP … but don’t let your USP be all you are.
Do you have a dog? Do you like sports? Do you get inspiration from your kids? Don’t blab on and on endlessly about tangential stuff … but don’t hide it, either.
2. Great characters cause the reader to reflect
A character will only hold your attention for so long if all you read is exposition about their life and events.
When a character is really great, it’s because the issues they weigh and the decisions they face make you think about the issues and decisions that you, the reader, face in your own life.
When you’re telling stories in your copy, don’t do it diary-fashion, like “Here’s what I did today.”
Instead, write about the reasons you did things and the choices you had to make. Include revelations and discoveries that reflect revelations and discoveries that others are likely to encounter.
You want your reader nodding, thinking, “Yeah, I’m like this person. Maybe what he’s done would be good for me, too.”
3. Great characters are optimistic
I run across what I think of as “wallowing copy” online all the time — stories of people in bummer situations who essentially use their platform to complain into the void.
It reminds me of when I used to work for my mom and something would get messed up. I’d tell her, “Such and such situation went wrong,” and then expect her to take it and solve it for me.
But she didn’t do that. Instead, she’d say, “Don’t just tell me what’s wrong. What are your ideas to fix it?”
A great character never sits with a problem for too long. He eventually comes up with a way to solve it. And for sales copy, a product or service is usually a good way to solve that problem.
4. Great characters aspire
We all enjoy reading about people who want to be bigger, better, stronger, faster. We like the story of the weak kid who wants to wrestle, or the old baseball player who wants to stage a comeback.
We like stories of people believing they can do more than anyone would expect of them, and then finding a way to make it happen.
As you write the story of your business or product, always be aspiring. Always demonstrate a desire to get better at what you do and to become more.
(If you do this one right, you’ll become a leader that people will want to follow, because you’re showing them how to be better, too.)
5. Great characters aren’t always great
One of my favorite TV shows over the past few years was the newer version of Battlestar Galactica, and it’s because the characters are so impossible to pigeonhole. Repeatedly, the “good” characters make morally and ethically wrong choices, while the villains do the right thing. The heroes are sometimes overly bold, or arrogant, or stupid.
Now don’t get me wrong — over the course of the long story arc, certain characters are always more noble than ignoble and more selfless than selfish, but it’s never black or white.
Remember tip #1 above? A lot of the same rules apply. Real people are conflicted, and real people are flawed. Characters who aren’t always perfect are usually much more relatable and likable.
Most people try to only present perfection in their copy.
My product idea was always perfect. I sold a zillion units the first time I tried. Everybody who’s used the product has done well with it, and nobody really seems to have failed. Every email goes out on time, my shopping cart never breaks, and I have never in my life looked stupid or been laughed at.
Stop doing this. No, don’t paint yourself as an unredeemable screwup when you tell your story, but don’t feel you need to be perfect, either.
Flaws (redeemable ones) make you believable and relatable, because your readers and customers aren’t perfect either.
Storyselling takes some practice just like writing fiction does, but it can be very effective once you get the hang of it. People aren’t always interested in reading marketing copy, but most of those same people are a sucker for a good story. If your current copy isn’t engaging anyone, telling tales just might.
You’ve got a story, even if you don’t think you do. Have a go at telling it sometime, and then let me know what happens. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.