If you want to write a bestseller, what will you choose as your main ingredient? Sex? Murder? Action? Suspense? They probably won’t do your chances any harm, but according to Jodie Archer, a former publisher, and Matthew Lockers of Stanford University, you’d be better off choosing ‘human closeness’. They stress that ‘this doesn’t mean romance – it could be talking with someone you are intimate with or shopping with a parent.’ In other words (as I see it) the depth and believability of relationships: antagonism mixing it with affection, tension alternating with tranquillity.
How do they know? They scanned 20,000 books, built an algorithm, and were able to predict with 80% accuracy those that made the bestseller lists. Of course, there’s a precondition, which their algorithm took for granted: the book first has to be published and noticed. But once that little obstacle is cleared, you’re all set.
Don’t overdo it, though. Human closeness for 30% of the book is enough. Then 30% on a different topic (technology, climate change, whatever) and the rest a sprinkling of miscellaneous details. There you go. Easy, eh?
That’s my simplified summary of an article in the Guardian, The secret DNA behind bestsellers. Hardly secret, I thought when I read it. Human closeness arouses our emotions. Aristotle wrote about that a while ago. But still, it’s worth thinking about when we create our characters. And getting it right, as always, is easier said than done.