Thursday, December 13, 2018

Exploitation Works

Zestful Blog Post #294

Exploitation Works

Exploitation is a thing, and it can be used. I wrote about this a few years ago, but want to give you some more specifics here. There are successful authors who appeal to the deepest-held beliefs / prejudices / yearnings of their audiences, once they’ve found them. Exploitation feeds on and encourages the time-honored us-versus-them dynamic. That’s not a comfortable dynamic for everyone all the time, but it resonates somewhere in every human heart.

A simple example might be a young adult book wherein a brave, outrageous cadre of students overthrows the mean old teachers, showing them they’re not so smart. The teachers learn from the students! Something that doesn’t often follow is the answer to the question: Now will the new rulers be kindly overlords? George Orwell’s Animal Farm explored this question, and as we might remember, things don’t look so great at the end of the story, which is a new beginning for the animals on the farm.

Exploitative stories often rely on stereotypes, which themselves represent a fascinating subtopic. To whom does the stereotypical mean Republican appeal? A hardcore Democrat might say, “That’s no stereotype! That’s simply reality!” To whom does the strong-but-dumb boyfriend stereotype appeal? How about the lazy immigrant? The suffering artist? The kind-hearted criminal? The trigger-happy cop? The angry-yet-somehow-perfect-in-every-way revolutionary?

It’s not by accident that more male readers enjoy (and buy) thrillers with strong, brave protagonists who win in the end. Not by accident that more women like romances where the plucky protagonist gets the handsome swashbuckler in the end. With a big, perfect wedding.

Novelists, filmmakers, religious leaders, and politicians have learned exploitation works. It’s button-pushing, and for what it is, it can be effective. There is, of course, the danger of exploitation backfiring on you, making you seem like a vindictive, unimaginative boob.

[Ivan was definitely Terrible]

But seriously, look closely at the novels you read and see if you can figure out where the exploitation is. Not all of it is heavy-handed; you can find subtle examples all over the place, and you can learn from them. Key into your emotions as you read: Why does some character or plot twist appeal to you? Why does another make you uncomfortable?

Our challenge as authors is to reject cheap, obvious exploitation, but embrace the good kind! Don’t be afraid to be conscious of what you’re doing; don’t be afraid to calculate. We want to dive deep to engage—and, really, control—our readers’ emotions. The best way to do this is get to know your characters really well. Respect them, and look for their complexity and depth. Then think deeply about your ideal reader.

Is your ideal reader a 40-year-old divorced airline pilot? Well, you can certainly create a main character who happens to be a 40-year-old divorced airline pilot. Wouldn’t just about any guy or gal like that want to be a hero in the air? Yes! It’s easy. You don’t have to make your pilot bring down the plane safely while killing all the bad guys with a ballpoint pen, but you might make your pilot do something hard and satisfying, like navigate around a mountain in the fog without instruments. (Can pilots do that? I don’t know, but you’ll research it.) And hey, your ideal reader might have a secret desire to do something really bad—like enter the underworld of drug smuggling. Well, your character can do that, and you will make sure they’re supremely successful at it! You can dream up all kinds of good ideas from this perspective.

Play matchmaker between your readers and your characters! Be shrewd! Make exploitation work for you. Your readers will love you for it.

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  1. A semantic quibble: I don't like the word "exploitation." It's a grabber, but it doesn't really fit here. I see exploitation as selling dope to an addict in withdrawal, conning a person out of their life savings, or lying to get someone in bed. The writers I teach have different motivations. Some are writing to leave something of value (fiction or nonfiction) to their descendants, some for therapy, some for recreation, some for self-expression, and finally, some for commercial success. The ones who are writing commercially are trying to provide a "product" that will appeal to their buyer/readers--more glamorous but not really different from the person who is manufacturing vacuum cleaners or canned peas or . . . I don't see exploitation there.

    1. Point well taken, Caroline. It is a bit of a hot term, and maybe I should rethink it going forward. Gonna think on that. Thanks for giving us a well-reasoned perspective.

  2. I don't have a problem with using the word "exploitation" here. Being aware of common prejudices and stereotypes as a tool to reach readers is smart writing. It's using an understanding of human nature as a means to make connections and to allow our stories to resonate. It's a use of resources, but it isn't taking advantage of anyone or doing anything detrimental like. In other words, exploitation has more than one narrow definition.

    I admit to using this approach in my most recent novel. I used common assumptions to lead readers to believe something that wasn't true. Other characters in the book labeled this guy a loser, so readers were inclined to believe he was guilty of doing heinous things, too... even though he wasn't. I had lots of fun turning those assumptions upside down. Things aren't always as they seem. :)

    1. Thanks for joining the convo, Susan. Your book sounds interesting! I was also thinking about so-called Blaxploitation films and Teensploitation films and books... And I might note that the dictionaries pretty much define 'exploit' (the verb) as 'to make use of, turn to practical account,' though it can also mean 'to use selfishly' or to unethical ends.

  3. You always have an interesting take on things. Hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday!


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