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The Universal in the Personal: Pulling Your Readers In

a woman underwater in a dress
Readers Want to Experience the Lives of Others to Know Themselves

The Importance of finding The Universal in the Personal: Pulling Your Readers in, cannot be understated. If your readers don't relate to what's happening in your fiction, they'll pick up something else. And that is not what you want to happen.

Writing is an exploration. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing literary fiction, fantasy, romance, thrillers, or works in any other genres. The thing that makes readers read, besides the elements of fiction done well, is that they relate to the stories being told. They connect with and understand the motivations and feelings and enjoy the scenes and plot, etc. in the works. For fiction to “work,” it must resonate with the reader.

If you’ve ever queried an agent or been lucky enough to have an agent send your work to an acquiring editor at a publishing house, there’s a good chance you’ve received the old “I couldn’t connect with the main character” rejection. That’s not just because of the dialogue or what your character looks like. It’s not because of what your character wants or how they go about getting it (or not getting it). What the agent or editor is telling you is that they couldn’t relate to the character, because that character wasn’t providing the clues and feelings of “yeah, I know exactly what she’s going through!” that draws readers in. If you can’t make sense of why someone would do something, or the emotions a character feels when things happen to them, it’s going to be hard trying to empathize and root for them. And if you can’t root for your hero, even if they’re a bad person, you’ll put the work down and abandon it like a week-old Twinkie (an open one, because God knows Twinkies are able to last nuclear apocalypses).

We, as human beings, aren’t snowflakes, no matter how much we believe we are (and here I mean actual snowflakes, not snowflakes in the political sense). We’re all different in some way. We have different body shapes and heights. We have different color hair or no hair at all. We come from different ethnic backgrounds. Speak different languages. Eat different foods. Wear different clothes. But that doesn’t mean we don’t all hold universal truths in how we feel, act, what motivates us, hurts us, makes us happy, the goals we may have for ourselves, and so on. James Joyce, author of Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, and more, said, "For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal." And he’s right.

As readers, we’re (mostly) unable to immerse ourselves for very long in literature that is presented to us from a ten-thousand-foot viewpoint. When we pick up a short story or a novel, we’re looking to recognize ourselves in some way in the characters we read about. Everything we feel, or experience emotionally, every painful or joyful moment in our lives, we want to know, in some way, that others feel the same. And these things are provided to us in heart-felt details, in the internal (and often external presentations of the) thoughts of characters, however embarrassing or hurtful, joyous or frightening, angry or disgusting they may be. We crave that as readers. Without these things, we have robots moving around set locations doing nothing.

In the particular is contained the universal.

--James Joyce

Good literature peels back our skin to see what’s inside. It opens our deepest wounds for the world to view in all its blood and gore and vulnerability. It riles us up and it stirs our emotions. It makes us think, and it makes us ask questions of ourselves and of others. We ask ourselves, Why does love lost hurt as much as it does to where I can’t eat or sleep or even breathe? Why, after all of my struggling, do I continue to struggle? Why can’t I succeed like everyone else around me? Why do the people I love as much as I do hurt me so? As writers, we need to allow for that vulnerability in order to connect with our readers. If they can’t feel our pain, if you don’t share with them the most intimate parts of your characters’ lives, they won’t be invested in the story you’re trying to tell. The reality of our lives is messy. It often doesn’t make sense. It’s illogical at times. But it’s these things that drive our curiosity as readers. It’s these things that make us want to know more.

book cover for The Losses by Cully Perlman
My Novel, The Losses, About a Family Falling Apart

When my novel, The Losses, was published, a good friend of mine told me that they kept thinking about the characters long after they’d finished reading the book. There were questions in The Losses that I knew were more universal and would apply to any reader, but there were also questions in there that were more personal to my friend’s actual life. And the truth is I had thought of this friend (and a few others) when writing the trials and tribulations of a certain character in my novel. I thought, How would this person feel if this happened to them in this context? How would they react? What would they do? And if they did do that, what would be the repercussions? I tend to write complex novels, though I have written some novels I call “straight novels,” meaning there’s a character or two and probably only one subplot if any, and not much going on outside of that. Complex novels allow me, or at least I believe they allow me, to hold a reader’s attention and, like a magician, trick them into thinking more deeply about things with my slight-of-hand. Or not trick, exactly, but create a scenario where all the pieces of the puzzle are there in the novel and they, the reader, just has to figure out how the puzzle goes together. In short, I try to make my readers think, which makes them ask questions, which for me is what literature is about.  

If the literature we are reading does not wake us, why then do we read it? A literary work must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.

--Franz Kafka

When writers write works that bring forth the universal through the personal, readers pay attention. They seek answers to the questions they have in their own lives about their feelings, their concerns, their need for community, whether they know it or not. Franz Kafka said, “If the literature we are reading does not wake us, why then do we read it? A literary work must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” Getting to the frozen sea inside us allows us, however painful, to make sense of the world. If the characters whose journeys we go on provide insight into why we feel the way we do, we no longer feel isolated. We no longer feel alone. We feel as if we are part of a community that shares the same experiences as we do, which means we’re not on the outside looking in, but on the inside looking at reflections of ourselves in those around us. As humans, we may be eccentric and original and want to believe ourselves special. And we are. We are snowflakes in that we’re not exact replicas of anyone else in the world. But we’re not alone in that aspect, and, deep down, we don’t really want to be.

Another friend who’s read a draft of a more recent novel of mine told me she laughed at a great many things one of my characters went through, and how she thought about these things. “I have those same crazy thoughts!” she said. She was amused. She said, “I thought I was the only one with such a depraved mind. But I guess not.” And that’s what she liked about the novel. Yes, there was the interest in learning what ultimately happened to my protagonist on her adventure, but it was my friend’s ability to relate to what my hero was experiencing as she faced the hurdles I threw in front of her, and how the same quirky feelings and emotions were drawn from her own experience. “I totally understood her,” she said. “She was me!”

Photo of Author Cully Perlman
The Author, Cully Perlman

Cully Perlman is a writer and Substantive Editor. If you have a novel ready to be edited, he can be reached at

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Apr 09
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