Readers look for a wide variety of benefits from books. But the same reader does not always desire the same thing every time. Non-fiction readers can address their needs topically, searching out books on sleep, or nutrition, or style. Fiction readers can also seek books to suit their desires, be it romance or fantasy or mystery.
In fiction, however, the needs and desires of the reader are complex. Topics are not so clearly defined, which is why so many books in, say, the Western genre have covers showing bare-chested men draped with attractive women. Some readers want the Old West hero, the shootout with the bad guy, but they also want romance and maybe a little bit of good old western sex.
Genres in fiction are not clearly defined and you can’t tell the book by its cover. A recent bit of advice to authors said forget about matching your cover to your story, see what is on the cover of the best selling books in your genre and copy that. Hmmm.
What is a reader to do? According to a recent survey, the number one way readers select books is choosing those by an author who is known to them. No surprise there. The safe road. Knowing what you will get. Being comfortable.
I choose non-fiction to learn and select fiction for enjoyment. Yes, I enjoy learning. But there are times I don’t want to learn, I don’t want to think, I want to enjoy. I want comfort.
I am currently reading an early Robert B Parker series of Westerns. The books are pure comfort, and I read them just before sleep when my brain has long been turned off.
There are a number of ways to present comfort in fiction. One is to keep the protagonists on familiar ground; the same town, the same eating places, the same landscape. Another is to maintain the same expected relationship between co-protagonists. Another is in the use of dialogue. Parker uses dialogue. An example:
“Got no guarantee,” Virgil said. I thought about that for a moment. “No,” I said. “I suppose you’re right about that.” Virgil shook his head slightly and turned, looking out the window. “Been enough, though,” Virgil said. “There has.” “Can’t say there might not be more.” “No, we can’t.”‘
Dialogue doesn’t get much more comfortable than this. And that’s just how I want it when I want it that way.
Craig Johnson writes his Longmire series for reader comfort using similar techniques. The relationship between his co-protagonists is just as easy going, just as unchanging, just as unreal as Parker’s. And just as comfortable.
A series of novels should offer comfort to the reader. In a series, whatever the madness and mayhem unique to each story, there will be consistent factors, a zone of safety and comfort. We know we can always rely on Poirot, or escape in the banter of Holmes and Watson. Sometimes it is simply the familiar writing style of the author that offers sanctuary.