Tips For Writing Reader Protagonist Stories
A reader protagonist story is a story where readers are supposed to be able to imagine that they themselves are the main characters. There are two types of reader protagonist stories: there's the Choose Your Own Adventure style of story, where readers can make choices that determine different outcomes and endings; and then there are "reader insert" stories that use a straightforward story like most other works of fiction. However, many of them are written in such a way that they're difficult to imagine that you're really the main character, or they're just plain awkward to read. So if you're thinking about writing one, here are some tips for you.
Table of Contents
- Avoid using placeholders for details.
- The second person narrative is your friend.
- Don't pile the reader character under with specific personal details.
- Use characterization strategically.
- So in summary...
Avoid using placeholders for details.
Many reader protagonist stories use placeholders for readers to fill in details, like so:
You brush out your (your h/c) hair.
You pull (your favorite color) dress out of the closet.
"My name is ______," you say.
Not only are the details that the stories are trying to draw attention to often irrelevant (people don't need to be prompted to imagine their own hair color - they already know what it is), placeholders can break people's immersion and make the story take longer to read, as they'll be forced to rewrite the sentences in their heads.
In cases where the details are important, placeholders can be easily avoided with a little effort. Here are some examples of the types of things that are frequently put into placeholders, and how the story can easily be rewritten so they aren't needed:
Placeholder: "(Y/N)!" Tanya called from across the lawn.
No placeholder: You heard Tanya call your name from out across the lawn.
Placeholder: You found a (your favorite color) shirt and put it on.
No placeholder: You found a shirt in your favorite color and put it on.
Placeholder: You put on (favorite album) and flopped back onto your bed.
No placeholder: You put on a favorite album and flopped back onto your bed.
The second person narrative is your friend.
When something is written in the first person ("I went for a walk in the woods today"), it sounds like you're reading something that another person is telling you, which can make it difficult to put yourself into the shoes of the protagonist.
In the third person ("Jackie went for a walk in the woods today"), it's nigh impossible to write a genuine reader story without using the aforementioned placeholders.
In the second person ("You went for a walk in the woods today"), it's clear from the get-go who the story is really about and immediately prompts readers to imagine themselves in the character's situation - and that's the effect a reader story should have.
Don't pile the reader character under with specific personal details.
The more specific personal details (EG, history, tastes, preferences, personal name, etc.) you add onto a character, the more you risk alienating readers with a character that is too far removed from their own realities to fit themselves into. It's relatively easy to imagine oneself as a teenager walking into the spooky woods at night after a disagreement with a parent. It's not so easy to imagine oneself as as a teenager walking into the spooky woods at night after a disagreement over something that you're not really interested in while listening to music that you've never heard of about while wearing an outfit you wouldn't be caught dead in. Without wiggle room to imagine that the character on the page shares your own tastes and preferences, it can be hard to believe that you're really reading a story about yourself.
If you're worried that trying to keep your character relatively blank will prevent you from describing anything, don't worry - there's actually plenty you can usually get away with being specific about. You just need to take the probable interests of your target audience into account - what would the type of person who would likely read your story probably like? For example, you can assume that most of the people looking at your story like reading fiction - or else they wouldn't be looking at your story in the first place. If you're posting a story on any site where people talk to each other and socialize, you can bet that your readers like socializing with friends over the Internet. So think about the types of people who are going to read your story and what they all likely have in common.
You can also draw likely interests from the subject matter of the story itself. If you're writing a story about a reader protagonist who meets a mermaid, you can easily get away with saying that the protagonist is interested in mermaids because it's a safe bet that your readers are, too. You could even go so far as to describe a mermaid picture on the wall that had been gifted by an aunt or found at a yard sale or something, because someone that interested in mermaids probably wouldn't object hanging mermaid art up on the wall.
And in such a case you wouldn't want to go linking to actual art - instead, you'd want to give them a simple description that would let them easily imagine the art in styles or aesthetics they might find pleasing.
You look at the picture your aunt brought you from her last vacation trip. It's a mermaid sitting on a stone rising above the surf, dark green hair and tanned skin glistening in the warm sunlight. Her friendly expression and outstretched hand make her appear as though she's beckoning you to the water.
While it's impossible to write a reader character to match each and every potential reader 100% (you really can't write a story with a character who has absolutely no solidified traits), these will still help make your reader characters more accessible overall and make it a bit easier for people to believe they are really reading about themselves.
Use characterization strategically.
It's generally best to give your reader character's close family, friends, and anyone else your character would have strong feelings about no more development or involvement in the story than is absolutely necessary for your story's purposes. Just as leaving things like fashion preferences left undefined gives readers room to imagine that the reader protagonist dresses the way they do, leaving things like the reader character's (for example) parents/guardians relatively undeveloped allows readers to imagine their fictional counterpart's parents as being fairly close to their own so they can more easily insert themselves into the story.
If your plot hinges some person that the readers might not have experienced in real life, then you need to build that person's character up in such a way that readers can imagine a life with that character in it and develop some emotions over the character. Let's say that an important part of your story is an antagonistic young man named Billy, whom the reader character is supposed to hate. If you simply try something like this:
"When Billy walks in, you roll your eyes. This guy tormented you as long as you remember and you hate him for it."
...That's not going to be very convincing to readers, particularly if they've never been the victim of someone who made it a personal task of tormenting someone else. On the other hand:
"When Billy walks in, you roll your eyes. He tormented you as long as you can remember. When you brought your favorite toy in for Show-And-Tell, he stole it from you and you never saw it again until you found it weeks later in a muddy puddle. In third grade, he 'accidentally' destroyed the art project you'd spent weeks on. In sixth grade, he started a rumor that you'd been making blood sacrifices to demons behind the gym, and when your parents found out they grilled you for hours before forcing you get rid of your favorite music albums and anything else that looked 'dark' to them."
Causing beloved belongings to be taken away (and as readers are free to imagine that they're the things they love dearly themselves, it becomes all the more personal), destroying things that represent large investments of time and effort, and causing believable tension with parents is going to hit most readers where it hurts and help them identify with their fictional counterpart.
On the other hand, if you wanted to build up a positive impression of someone the reader is supposed to be friends with, you might try:
"You've hung out with Holly since kindergarten, where you used to play make believe together on the playground. Growing up, you'd often go to each other's houses after school and play video games and talk about your crushes or think up fantastic worlds together. When your Halloween costume got stained with punch in sixth grade, Holly let you dress up in some of her own old costume parts and let you borrow some of her accessories to complete your look."
Here, it's easy to understand why you might be friends with Holly - you have fun together and Holly is a person who looks after her friends. (And you're also free to imagine and personalize the details of what you do together.)
So in summary...
- Use the second person narrative and avoid using placeholders to give readers a smooth and immersive reading experience.
- Give readers room to imagine and see themselves in their characters. If the main character's tastes, hobbies, family life, etc. are completely and totally defined by the writer, it's not really a reader protagonist/reader insert story - it's just a regular story.
- Define details about your character's personal life strictly as necessary to the story, and when it comes to picking out personal tastes stop and think about what your target audience might be into and start working from there.
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