Ready Player One: 3 Painful Lessons About Success for Writers

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One has earned some harsh criticism:

“Heavy-handed male wish fulfillment.”

“The references were about as subtle as a popup ad.”

“Wade Watts is a Mary Sue, whose only character flaw is ‘being poor,’ which isn’t really a flaw.”

Yet millions of readers devoured it—including people who normally don’t buy fiction. Now, Ready Player One is a major Hollywood production that could break the box office.

How did Ready Player One do so well, despite the polarizing reviews? Can writers duplicate that kind of success with their own work?

I’ll give you some honest answers, but be warned: they might hurt…

1. How Ready Player One Won the “Market Lottery”

Is Ernest Cline a market-analysis genius?

I don’t know. But judging by the lackluster reviews of his second novel, Armada, my guess is “probably not.”

Like most writers, Cline did not look at the market and say, “Hm, what kind of book are people aching to buy?” Instead, he sat down and wrote about something he loved.

The thing he loved happened to be exactly what the market was looking for, at exactly the right time.

Here’s how we know that:

In 2011, Random House bought Ready Player One for six figures. Even though it was Cline’s first novel.

They knew this book was going to be a “perfect storm” bestseller, because it was:

  1. nostalgic.
  2. video-game obsessed.
  3. very accessible, especially for people who don’t read much fiction.

How Can You Win the Lottery with Your Next Story?

Analyze the market, and try to guess what the market wants… but at what cost?

If you were to write a story solely because “the market wants it,” you’d be doing yourself (and your readers) a huge disservice.

Why? Because instead of writing the story you care about, you’d be work-horsing for a cause that you don’t.

Worse, because you don’t truly care about the content of your story, it will lack emotion. Ready Player One was such a fun read because Cline was having fun while he was writing it.

Go write what you love. Write the things you truly care about. Your stories will burst with feeling. Your readers will feel the heat of your passion radiating off the pages.

And, if what you love happens to be what the market wants… well, you might just be lucky enough to win the Lotto.

2. Why Readers Got Exactly What They Wanted

Ready Player One was bad because it was heavy-handed wish fulfillment.”

No. That’s exactly why it was good—or at least, that’s why it was very successful.

This book was written for a very specific audience. Most of that audience shares a lot in common with Ernest Cline:

  • Nerdy male
  • Loves video games
  • Raised on 80’s culture

Ready Player One didn’t use a diverse cast—not really. It focused on a character who heavily represented the audience, made him incredibly active… and after he tried, failed, and refused to back down, he got everything.

But most of all, he was rewarded for playing video games, binging on 80’s culture, and living in a high-octane adventure that most of us would only dream of.

How Can You Give Your Readers Everything They Want?

Well, you can always pander.

I’m not saying Cline was pandering, but… well, the book references more than 390 other works of genre fiction, movies, video games, etc. Also, the protagonist’s character arc was pretty similar to my 8th-grade bucket list:

  • Never go outside
  • Win a zillion bucks
  • Save the girl (and hope she falls in love with you)

And, of course, the protagonist got to play video games for a living.

That’s really what Ready Player One did so well: It used two worlds to set up and fulfill one very unique but common wish.

While the real world was turning into a wasteland, the virtual world became more attractive every day—both for the characters, and the readers.

Here’s how you fulfill your readers’ wishes (the right way):

  1. Focus on a single, definable audience
  2. Find out one big thing they desperately want (and will probably never get)
  3. Fulfill that wish in a way that hasn’t been done before

For example, RPO focused on 80’s gamers, and gave them a scenario where an 80’s gamer became the richest, most loved, and most powerful person in the world—by playing a video game.

3. Was Ready Player One’s Protagonist a “Blank Slate?”

Quick—what does Wade Watts look like? What sticks out about his physical appearance?

95% of you won’t be able to answer that (including myself). Why? Because it doesn’t matter. By using a basic, almost blank character, it lets the reader imagine themself in his place.

I saw someone claim that Ready Player One was “Twilight for guys.” And it’s true. Wade Watts was a likeable stand-in for video game-loving males, just as it was easy for girls to see themselves in the vampire-loving Bella Swan; if your protagonist only has one main characteristic, the readers can fill in the rest with their own interests.

Should You Make Your Protagonist a “Blank Slate?”

99.99% of the time, blank slates are boring. Most publishers see it as amateur.

Blank slates only really work if…

  1. your reader can immediately step into the blank slate’s shoes.
  2. your rapid-fire plot or groundbreaking idea can distract from the fact that the protagonist lacks a personality.

So why did Random House pick up Ready Player One?

Because they knew exactly what they wanted: a book they could market to non-readers.

They needed something with almost no barrier to entry, a simple plot, and a blank-slate protagonist.

The (Not So) Surprising Truth About Ready Player One

Ready Player One was not written for writers. It was not made to withstand critical literary analysis. It was not written to appeal to the “advanced reader” in all of us.

This book was written for fun.

Random House knew they could sell this book to new readers and to people who don’t read much anymore. It worked on the nostalgia of the 80’s, and the digital obsession of the 2010’s.

Love it or hate it, you can’t deny this book was a commercial success. And there are many (painful) lessons us writers can take from it.


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8 thoughts on “Ready Player One: 3 Painful Lessons About Success for Writers

  1. Zaya

    I said this once before and I’ll say it again. What made Ready Player One a success was the world building. Granted, Cline did have a lot to work with by just taking things from pop culture. But, it’s ridiculous to assume that market timing played the main role, as if one could publish a boot if the market conditions were right. Market timing definitely helped, but the number one thing that made it a success was the setting. The book would be nothing without the Oasis.

    I remember reading it and noticing all the flaws immediately. The rehashed plot, the paper thin stereotypical characters, the heavy use of overused tropes, but somehow, despite those things, I finished it without any problem and enjoyed myself. I kept reading the book for the Oasis because it was such an exciting place to be. I may not be able to picture the characters, but I can imagine myself in that world vividly. Does that make it great writing, probably not, and it’s definitely not a perfect model to follow, but this goes to show how treating the world like a first class character brings a reader into your story.

    1. P. S. HoffmanP. S. Hoffman Post author

      I came here to argue… but this is an incredibly insightful comment, and I think you’re absolutely right about this:

      “…this goes to show how treating the world like a first class character brings a reader into your story.”

      This is absolutely Ready Player One’s strongest card, and it’s definitely the main reason so many people loved it.

      I will say this about the market timing – here’s the Google Trends for the term MMO:

      https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=%2Fm%2F02lzy0

      RPO was released right after the second peak in that graph. I’m convinced the book was picked up because it capitalized on the MMO crowd (“nerdy” men from ages 18-48) right at the tail end of their extreme popularity. I’m not saying the book was written to capitalize on this trend, I think the publishers just made a very smart choice to select this book and market it as hard as they did at this time.

      Here are some stats about the demographics of MMO players from around that time: https://petsymposium.org/2011/papers/hotpets11-final7Likarish.pdf

  2. druchance

    I notice you didn’t cite those quotes from the reviews. That’s telling, isn’t it? You also neglected to include any quotes from the scads of positive reviews the book received. I think the answer to your question is simple: the book is really, really good. Great characters, a compelling story, relevant themese (perhaps even more relevant now than when the book was written).

    A couple issues: I can’t imagine someone who read the book NOT remembering that Wade was obese. That’s a major plot point in the last third of the book, if you recall. Also, I don’t know any men who read the book, but my girlfriend loved it, and everyone else who I know who read it is female as well.

    The protagonist’s character arc was multi-faceted: get over the guilt he felt for the deaths of the people in the stacks; break out of poverty/obscurity to achieve greatness (basic Campbell stuff — Taran the Assistant Pigkeeper and all that); learn the true meaning of family and friendship; learn that it’s best to unplug; most of all, learn that, even though the oppressive mega corporation has all the resources and money at its disposal, sheer determination and willpower can win out.

    I’m not sure the book was written for fun. It’s got a powerful message. Maybe you missed it? I also can’t imagine a “non-reader” liking this. Would your opinion of the book been different if Halliday had been obsessed with Greek Myths or 19th century British lit or the American Civil War instead?

    1. P. S. HoffmanP. S. Hoffman Post author

      Hey Dru, thank you for the comment. You bring up some very interesting points.

      1. I didn’t cite those quotes because I didn’t want to draw flack to random internet strangers. I didn’t want to give people an avenue to brigade them. There are plenty of review sites where you can see the negative (and positive) reviews about this book. I promise I didn’t make these up.

      2. I’m really glad you loved Ready Player One. Personally, it wasn’t for me. That said, there are at least four people in my life who hadn’t read a fiction book in years, and “got back into reading” because of this book – which I think is outstanding.

      I thought it went without saying that this book has a massive amount of praise, and didn’t really need to be restated here. It’s definitely not my place to tear down this book, nor was I trying to.

      There are tons of reviews that cover the majority of my feelings about this book. This article wasn’t meant to be a commentary on what I liked/didn’t like. Rather, I was hoping to stoke curiosity.

      There are books out there that, no matter how many people love them, I simply “don’t get it.” It’s a strange feeling to watch those books catch on fire with success. Sometimes, it seems to be random. I was hoping to dissect that seeming randomness, and show just how much of it is luck, and how much of it is strategy.

      Ready Player One was a perfect vehicle for this because A) it’s relevant right now, and B) I feel pretty strongly about it. Hope that helps you see where I’m coming from.

  3. Chris Norbury

    Excellent post. So true that high quality and popularity don’t often mix. I constantly remind myself that no matter how great my book is (and it’s not), the Coen brothers (we attended the same school at the same time for several years) aren’t likely to make it into a movie if they don’t think they can sell it to Hollywood studio executives who control the $$. 😉

    Yet, literary cat litter such as 50 Shades of Gray sells like wildfire AND becomes a hit movie! No one ever said life would be fair. (Not complaining, just observing. Why should life be fair? It’s so damn random. How can it possibly be fair to 7 billion people?)

    1. P. S. HoffmanP. S. Hoffman Post author

      “How can it possibly be fair to 7 billion people?”

      Absolutely right. As long as you love what you’re writing, why should you care if it sells for millions?

      I’d also like to point out that “literary cat litter” is a hilarious term, and maybe a little unfair. These books obviously have value to a huge amount of people, and get tons of people back in to reading. This, at the least, makes them valuable.

      It’s so interesting to watch serious writers disapprove of quick success – especially when I’ve felt the same way. I’ll definitely write something more analytical about this topic soon.

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Chris.

  4. TLSabo

    Looking from the present it’s easy to think that Cline threw creativity to the wind and calculated what the market was looking for, and wrote it. But as P.S.Hoffman points out, Cline wrote for himself.
    Who knows how many manuscripts Random House reviewed before Ready Player One caught their eye.

    Enjoyed the article.

    1. P. S. HoffmanP. S. Hoffman Post author

      Really great point about Random House. I’d also love to know how many times Ready Player One was rejected by other publishers.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, TL. It’s my first one here! Hopefully, I’ll have one that’s more positive next month.

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