I’ve been really brain-storming how to get my books in front of people who might want to read them – meaning reaching the right readership, and it occurred to me I’m going the wrong way about it.
The thing is that my Lukas Boston Mysteries should appeal to female readers who like this kind of roguish, smart-arse, womanising, amusing main character with ridiculous good looks and charming bedroom manners, but my new covers were screaming “horror”, which couldn’t be further from the reality. All the paranormal stuff in my Lukas Boston books is funny, kind of quirky shit. Definitely not frightening. Lukas gets annoyed by ghosts. They’re a pain in the arse most of the time.
Anyway, in my efforts to figure out a solution, someone on a forum suggested my books were “Urban Fantasy” and it might be the key to reaching those women readers, since it’s popular. Now, say to me fantasy and I going to think dwarves, elves, dragons and wizards – and all the above shafting each other with swords and axes in pursuit of some kind of Holy Grail (in a castle at the End Of The World). Asking the forum for clarification (what is “urban fantasy?”) triggered a fierce debate. A touchy subject, apparently.
However, I can safely tell you that these days “fantasy” applies to just about anything paranormal. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches… you name, they all get categorised as a kind of fantasy figure now. In fact, someone went so far as to say there is no such thing as horror anymore. Instead “Horror” needs to be correctly identified as whatever fantasy sub-genre the story demands.
I had another problem. If you start labeling any sexual or naughty stuff in your books as in any way… well, rude – you run the risk of the Erotica Police abducting you in the middle of the night and dragging you screaming away into the darkness, never to be seen again. In other words they get pissed off, if you try to kind of cash in on the popularity of erotica without actually writing the “wet plumber shags bored housewife” books. But Lukas does get a bit risque now and then – think “Fifty Shades of Benny Hill” here (well, not quite). So what can I do?
However, it seems you can include romance-like keywords in your metadata as long as you don’t register your books in the actual Amazon Romance categories – go figure. And we’re talking a foreign language here. Stuff like “rake”, “rogue” and “alpha male”.
So this all led to me rewriting the Lukas Boston metadata and redesigning the covers again, including adding the handsome chap in the top right-hand corner who, I should point out, looks nothing like me. I’m sure he’s disappointed about that.
At least this is a really good thing about self-publishing. You can tweak and change stuff on the fly, trying to adjust your books to find that readership as much as you like. Fingers crossed…
Authors spend a lot of time creating their characters, but as readers do we really care? Won’t you quickly make up your own mind how these heroes look anyway? For example how do you prefer your fairy princesses or fairy queens? Would you rather Cate Blanchett, the elvish Queen Galadriel from Lord of the Rings, who kind of glows all the time with so much wisdom, righteousness and love it must be a right bastard for her to get a decent night’s sleep, or would you vote for Princess Fiona from Shrek? (In Cameron Diaz daytime mode, not the ogre version – not that I have any issues with ogres).
Who’s your go-to knight in shining armour? Again, the dashing chaps in Lord of the Rings are mostly square-jawed, steely-eyed handsome guys who will never disappoint any damsels in distress they happen to stumble across and rescue. In comparison, the blokes in Game of Thrones tend to be a little more grubby and should be in a quest for a good bath, not magic shit. I know a lot of women don’t mind the rugged, recently-rolled-in-the-dirt look, but BO is still BO. You wouldn’t want these guys sitting on your best lounge suite without putting down a sheet first. Wipe your boots at the door, too. A lot.
The point is, when we see in our mind’s eye the heroes and heroines we’re reading about in a story, most likely and despite the author’s best efforts, we’ll slowly replace that character’s appearance with our preferred idea of what they should look like. Sometimes we don’t even bother with the author’s description. I reckon this is particularly true in Erotica or Romance stories. Who wants to spoil their sexual fantasies with unhelpful details of the lovers’ real appearance? Have you ever read Fifty Shades of Grey? Do you have any idea what Christian Grey or Anastasia Steele are supposed to look like? Did you ever even think about it?
It’s why, when you watch the movie version of a book you’ve already read, that seeing the characters for the first time can be a bit disappointing or at least needing some mental adjustment. By the way, Fifty Shades of Grey should be out as a movie next year. More than a few million people might not approve of the actors who are cast, if they don’t fit the imaginary bill.
Dwarves aren’t such a problem, because you’re not often asked to imagine a dwarf. You’d have to agree that Tyrion Lannister of Game Of Thrones has probably got the Most Popular Dwarf award cornered, except maybe for Gimli from Lord of the Rings – a character, by the way, played by John Rhys-Davies who is 6ft 1in tall (185cm). Still, if I had to create a dwarf for one of my books – a likeable dwarf (evil dwarves are easy, just think Mini-Me) – he’d be a kind of very short version of Brad Pitt mixed with George Clooney, plus add a dash of all the lads in One Direction to cater for a younger readership.
In my Lukas Boston Mystery detective novels, since they often sneak into a rich humour, I’ve made Lucas outrageously good-looking and impossibly attractive to women, awesome in bed, charming, witty… you know the rest – which gives me a lot of fun to play with when Lucas’ charms fail to make an impact. He sort of can’t believe it, when a beautiful woman rejects him.
Even so, I wouldn’t be surprised if many female readers will still mentally replace Lucas’ roguish appeal with a bloke who better fits their image of the ideal man. And that’s okay. It’s all part of your joy of reading books, rather than watching a film where so many choices aren’t yours to make. There is a lot of missing background story and detail in a novel that you’re more than welcome to create for yourself and make it all the more enjoyable. If there’s anything important that affects the plot somehow – like the hero is really short or maybe fat and it is a crucial element to the story at some point, then it’s up to the author to remind the readers about this at regular moments. We have to drop hints or make some aside references every now and again, so when our main guy (or girl) can’t reach the top shelf or doesn’t fit through the door in a hurry – and this is a pivotal moment in the plot – the readers don’t think “Oh, that’s right, he really short/fat”… they already remember and know.
Otherwise, while we can’t – as authors – take the easy way out and suggest you make up your own characters at the beginning of any book like you’re filling in some sort of Ikea Hero/Heroine mail-order form, and we have to make an effort to describe the flesh and blood bits, I suspect that your imagined dwarf will always be somehow better than ours, your princesses will be more beautiful, your heroines more stunning and your knights in shining armour – thanks to Game of Thrones’ enormous success – will forever be in desperate need of a good scrub and a lot of deodorant.
Graeme Hague (published under G.M.Hague) is the author of the Lukas Boston Mystery series of cozy crime novellas, which you can find here, plus he has been traditionally published in the horror, crime and historical fiction genres and his past print books are available as ebooks from Momentum Books here.