There may be writers who want to alienate their readers. (I can’t think of any, off-hand, perhaps because they’ve been so successful in achieving their goal.) But the rest of us want to draw our readers in. We want them to identify with the themes and heroes we create. In other words, we strive for universality. But oddly enough, our means of accomplishing this may be the very thing that defeats our purpose.
Early in my writing career, I wrote a film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, a novel set in late 19th and early 20th century China. I was concerned that western audiences would be unable to relate to an obscure Asian farmer’s rise from crushing poverty to profligate wealth. Consequently, I downplayed the more “foreign” elements of the story. Result? The first draft fell as flat as an undercooked mooncake.
So I rewrote it, folding back in details I’d previously omitted: enigmatic local gods, foil papers and lucky colors, opium dens and prostitution-serving “tea houses.” To my surprise, the first studio exec who read it remarked how “universal” the story was. That was when I first came to understand the principal of:
The universal in the specific.
Readers are more interested in truth than familiarity. And to be true, writers must be authentic—fearlessly so. That is both the challenge and glory of writing. Audiences seek the universal, yes. But universality isn’t found in familiarity, it’s found in specificity. The reader seeks a vicarious experience, seeks to live in someone else’s skin for awhile. And a vicarious experience can only be created through the rich details of time, place, and character. If you’re not being specific, you’re being nothing at all.
Experiencing a life that’s different from our own is, ironically, the best way to discover how much we are alike. True stories, both real and fictional (all good fiction is true), provide the puzzle pieces that complete our picture of humanity. They help us to say, “So this is what we are.”
So don’t strive to be universal. Strive to be true. Strive to be authentic. Fearlessly inhabit the local, the unique, the specific. And you will discover that you have opened the door to…