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Using Universal Themes Part 1

There are some stories that transcend genre because they have mass appeal. 

The secret to mass appeal is universal theme and wish fulfillment. There are certain situations that everyone can relate to no matter what genre they prefer to read or watch.

Even when a book is wildly successful, there will be readers who turn away from it; either because the content offends, the story touches a raw nerve, or the writer's technique does not suit them. You can't please everyone.

Stories with universal appeal have a better chance of capturing the imagination of the populace.

This week, we'll take a look at a few themes.

1. Home Sweet Home: We all want to belong somewhere and to someone. In addition to food, shelter, clothing, and safety, belonging is a core need. We have all been lost at some point, either on a highway or in a shopping mall. Many people have had to leave home to go to college, to work, or to war. We all miss home. Even if our home lives were crappy, we idealize what home should have been and we long for it. We long for it like we long for water when we are thirsty or food when we are hungry. Longing for home is the theme of the blockbusters E.T., The Wizard of Oz, and Homeward Bound among many others. It will resonate with readers across the globe.

2. The Orphan: Think of Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling, The Lightening Thief by Riordan, the musical Annie, or any other orphan tale. Abandonment by death or intent is a deep wound that people have a hard time overcoming. Even when they think they have overcome it, a story can come along and rip the scab off the wound. We relate to a character that is suffering the slings and arrows of the orphaned or abandoned child. We like watching them rise up the ranks in life. We like watching them fight to prove themselves worthy. We want to see them end up on top, connected, and loved. We want them to find a home: the place where they truly belong. Many people grow up feeling like they don't belong: to their families, their school, or their town. If they find out they were really a changeling left on the doorstep, they are given the chance to find the place and people they should have been with all along.

3. The Wizard: A good book often explores wish fulfillment fantasies. We all feel inadequate at some point. We have all felt bullied or helpless. I doubt there is a child out there that did not, at one point or another, wish she had super powers so she could fight back. They pretended in the privacy of their rooms to be witches or warlocks or superman. Those children grow up to read books and watch movies. This theme is another reason why Harry Potter went orbital. It had orphans, revenge, and supernatural powers. It is the allure of the all Marvel comics and the movies made from them. We want someone superhuman or magically enhanced to do what we often cannot. We want to imagine ourselves waving the magic wand to change things we cannot change. We've gone from Merlin of King Arthur lore to the plethora of supernatural tales jamming the bookstore shelves in the YA, Mystery, Romance, and Horror aisles. Some are better than others.

4. Sweet Revenge: We've all been angry at some point and wished we could wreak revenge. We wished we were bigger, stronger, smarter, or had more money or power. We vent about what we'd like to do to the motorist that cuts us off, the boss who embarrassed us, or the crook that stole our wallet. Most of us are rational enough to not run around shooting people. Joking or ranting about our revenge fantasies takes the heat out of the situation. Whenever a core value or currency is transgressed, it triggers this response. We love seeing the victim of the tale take revenge on our behalf. We want the good guys to win, for might to make it right. This is the appeal of all the blockbuster action movies. It is the appeal of Braveheart, Oceans Eleven, and Mean Girls.

Tune in next week for more universal themes.

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