I’ve written about the overall formula for blurbs before, but today, I wanted to discuss characterization.
It may seem like blurbs don’t have enough room for characterization–that the back of the book snippet is just too short to do more than say who the main character is, what they’re struggling with, and hint at why this matters–but characterization is what drives readers to open the book inside or pass on by.
Let me show you how it works.
One day, Jane opens her door to find a package with a mysterious, shiny label. It says it’s for her, but she doesn’t know how that could be.
Still, after she opens the box she finds herself on a journey of discovery and adventure, as the cardboard cubicle becomes a portal to a new world, full of dangers and difficulties. With the help of a wandering minstrel and a unicorn, she has to journey to the lair of Fairbourn, the wise dragon that will either eat them all for lunch or tell them how to defeat the evil Lord of the Bycordz…and how Jane can make it back home.
This is a bare-bones blurb, and it’s bad. Not only is it too short, but there’s no characterization. There’s no real reason to care about Jane and her journey of discovery. We get some idea of the world she’s stumbled upon, but we don’t have any reason to root for her…we know nothing about her.
Compare that to this:
One day, Jane opens her door to find a package with a mysterious, shiny label. It says it’s for her, but she doesn’t know how that could be. She didn’t order anything since buying the fantasy-book-of-the-month, and she isn’t the sort of girl to get mystery presents. And she just moved into the neighborhood. Anyone who knows she’s there is bound to be a stalker…right?
Still, she decides to open the box (curiosity cannot be denied, not when one hasn’t had a cup of coffee) and she suddenly finds herself on a journey of discovery and adventure. The cardboard cubicle becomes a portal to a new world, full of dangers, difficulties, and a distinct lack of cell phone reception. With the help of a wandering minstrel and a unicorn, she finds she has to journey to the lair of Fairbourn, the wise dragon that will either eat them all for lunch or tell them how to defeat the evil Lord of the Bycordz. And maybe, if he’s not too busy, he’ll help Jane figure out how to get back home by dinnertime?
The second blurb is better, not because it gives us any more details about the plot, but because it gives us characterization. It tells us who Jane is (in a blurb, you usually don’t have the luxury of much showing) by indicating that she just moved, that she doesn’t get presents, that she reads fantasy and even buys books of the month. Then it shows us that she’s an adult (or at least a young adult) by mentioning a worry about stalkers, coffee, and cell phone reception. In addition to giving us more humor and thus a taste of what the narration inside might be like, we get to know the main character and are given some reasons why we might care enough about her to want to join her on her journey to Fairbourn.
Characterization motivates readers. We usually don’t read stories just because there’s a danger present, a struggle to overcome, or a problem to be faced (though certain books do rely on the plot as the primary reason to read the story, where the plot is unique enough that it really doesn’t matter who the character is–like in murder mysteries, where a death under certain circumstances is what drives the story, and the readers mostly need details about the circumstances to make their read-it-or-not decision).
For most genres, we read stories because we get enough of a hint in the blurb that we might like the characters and we want to know more. Tell us “humanity is in danger” and we might be interested, but tell us “Your best friend is being framed for murder” and suddenly, we’ll deeply care. That’s the glory of fiction. We get to create people who seem real and introduce them to readers to where they enter the circle of “people that matter,” cutting through apathy and distance to become near and dear to us. Blurbs, like the stories inside, need to play to fiction’s strengths and not just rely on the benevolence of readers to want to care about their nameless, faceless entities, and characterization is how you make that happen.
Copyright 2018 Andrea Lundgren
Image by mzacha, Creative Commons