Guest Post: Kameron Hurley On Making People Care

kameronhurley-themirrorempireKameron Hurley doesn’t really need an introduction anymore. She’s a two time Hugo winner, author of what are currently the only three novels in the subgenre of bug punk, and not just an amazing fiction writer, but a brilliant essayist as well. And she’s currently on the last leg of a five-week long whirlwind tour of the internet to promote her latest novel, the epic fantasy Mirror Empire. I’m currently in the midst of reading Mirror Empire and thus far it is awesome. Ambitious, challenging, and giving us characters to love and characters to love to hate. I’m very honoured to welcome Kameron to the blog today with a guest post all about storytelling.

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On Making People Care: Storytelling in Fiction vs Marketing

I’m going to tell you a story.

It’s how I began my most popular essay to date, which went on to win a Hugo Award for Best Related Work, get nominated for a British Fantasy Award for Best Nonfiction, was reprinted twice, and has been translated into four languages.

You might think there’s no correlation between how I began that essay and its success, but I’d challenge that assertion. The truth is that “We Have Always Fought” doesn’t say anything particularly new and mind-blowing about the role of women in combat throughout history. Take a women’s history course or pick up some books or spend more than a passing moment Googling the issue and you’ll come to some of the same conclusions. We have women combat veterans now. They exist. They have always existed. But we don’t see them. We don’t talk about them. We don’t write stories about them.

And when we stop telling stories about people, we forget them. We erase them from the collective history of our lives, our cultures.

All I did was tell a story.

I write about a book a year while holding down a day job writing marketing and advertising copy. Folks ask me, often, if the marketing work steals a lot of creative energy for fiction. But the truth is that they’re different types of writing. In fiction, I’m the only real stakeholder. People can give me a lot of suggestions, but I don’t have to take any of them. In marketing, I’m usually the person at the very bottom of the decision hierarchy. Folks come to me for words and ideas and then run off with them, often to the extent that I don’t recognize the final product. To be sure, some projects are more successful than others, and a great ad project is a true team effort, with everybody bringing their best ideas; clients acknowledge they did indeed come to you for those, instead of plastering over what you bring them with their own vision.

What’s this have to do with story? Hold on. We’re getting there.

One of the big things these two types of work have in common is that my goal in both is to make people care about something – in both cases you might see it as a product, whether I’m selling a book or toilet bowl cleaner. In the case of the book, though, what we aim to get people invested in the characters. When folks are emotionally invested in a story, they’re far more likely to gush about it to others. And if they’re not in love with your characters, you’d better have an astonishingly compelling story. The story, the “what if” keeps people turning pages even when they’re not in love.

It’s the same in some types of advertising. If I can’t get you to form an emotional connection to a place, a product – Disney, Coke, and McDonald’s are masters of emotional manipulation like this – then what I want to do is tell a story so compelling that you can’t look away. Brands like to sponsor athletes, and tell stories of overcoming adversity, so that you’ll associate the strength of the athlete’s body or resolve (or both) with their product. It’s the sort of magical thinking that says: “drink Powerade and you’ll be a great athlete too!”

Storytelling is how we’ve passed on social mores, history, and morality in our cultures for tens of thousands of years. Storytelling is a universal: every culture does it. There’s a reason our religious books aren’t simply a list of shall-and-shall-nots. Morals and teachings are contained in stories, which are studied, dissected, and passed down; we remember stories in a way we don’t remember lists of facts.

Storytelling instead of infodumping is a fairly well-known life hack, but there are still very few people who tell stories instead of facts. Even in marketing circles, where this is our business, and we should deploy stories ruthlessly, I still get direction from stakeholders who want facts and bullet points. I hear exclamations about how the folks we’re talking to are analytical. But an analytical person is not an emotionless robot.

The reality is that in life, in business, it’s much easier for us to fall back on the safety of “logic.” If we’re just logical enough, reasoned enough, we’ll sway people to our side. But people are not swayed by logic. People use logic to back up their emotional decisions.

I could tell you that over and over again, or I could tell you this story:

At my day job, we’d been trying to sell a software upgrade to a pool of existing users for some time without much success. Our response rates were approaching 0. One of the things the marketing manager told me is that people adored this product; they were steadfast fans, but they were so attached to the current version that no one could see any good reason to upgrade. They’d already sent piece after piece of bulleted, logical items about all the benefits of upgrading, and how much better the product was, and offered discounts. It didn’t work.

While floating ideas with my creative director I said, “What if we send a love letter from the product? Like, nothing creepy, but something like, ‘we’ve had a lot of great times together in the past, and I’ve been working to improve myself so that we can work even better together.’?”

We managed to get the marketing manager on board (I’m still stunned) mainly because nothing else was working. The designer and creative director designed a really nice envelope with classy heart-shaped cut-outs and signed it off “XOXO.” I framed the copy as if this was coming from a beloved, trusted partner who had been improving just for them. We included a discount offer on the upgrade as an added carrot.

The day after the mailer went out, the responses started to roll in. The first was from a customer who said to their software rep, “I want to use my love coupon!”

Yeah, they were pretty into it.

We went from barely measurable responses to industry standard responses overnight, all because we found a way to tell a story that connected with people on an emotional level instead of a logical one. The truth is we want to fall in love. We want to care. Even when we know the game.

This works broadly across a variety of audiences, and it’s something I think a lot about when crafting marketing pieces. I still bump into resistance a lot – I write more bullet-pointed-emails than you can imagine – but the pieces that make people care, that make people feel, that evoke an emotional reaction, are the pieces that last. That’s how you create a customer for life, instead of just grabbing a quick sale from somebody price hunting.

It turns out that novels are much the same way. People share books that they love. We find ourselves, as writers, trying to figure out what “sells” books. And the reality is that what sells books is writing something people love so much, and are so connected to or titillated by or excited by that they want to tell their friends, tell everyone they know, so they can discuss it endlessly, write fanfic about it, draw the characters, cosplay as the characters, get tattoos of symbols or people in the book, and celebrate the next release in the series as if it were a holiday. It’s love that sells books, not bullet points.

The truth is, however, that what readers love, what customer love, what the public loves, is not always easy to deduce. Sometimes it’s merely a trick of luck, of happenstance, where your work taps into the current cultural zeitgeist. Right time, right place.

But no matter the end game, it all starts the same way, doesn’t it?

“I’m going to tell you a story.”

What that story is, how you choose to tell it, is what you have to offer the world. Be sure you’re telling a worthy story.

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kameronhurleyBio: Kameron Hurley is the author of the new epic fantasy The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFEscapePodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

You can find Kameron online at her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

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  • Paul (@princejvstin)

    Thanks, Kameron.

    I agree completely with you. Man is the animal that tells stories to explain itself, and its world. Storytelling is a superpower, and you have it.

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  • Wonderful story, and a power message. You’ve opened my eyes to a possible reason that I have so much difficulty engaging 13-year-olds in my confirmation class. I teach them all the theology and principles, and I say that God loves them, but I haven’t been invoking the power of the stories of scripture and saints and my own life to communicate that love. I’m going to take a completely new approach this weekend. Thank you.