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:
- video-game obsessed.
- 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):
- Focus on a single, definable audience
- Find out one big thing they desperately want (and will probably never get)
- 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…
- your reader can immediately step into the blank slate’s shoes.
- 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.
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.