Borrowing a lesson from Disney to sell books

ONE DAY in college (I forget which class — maybe marketing, or a business course), the professor asked, “What does Disney sell?”

He wanted a one-word answer. There is one product, he told the class, that Disney sells. So what is it?

No one wanted to venture an answer. We knew it was a trick question. No one wanted to be the person to get it wrong.

The classroom fell completely silent (the way it does only when everyone goes stock-still, willing themselves into invisibility with the mantra, “Don’t call on me, don’t call on me”).  Our professor scanned the crowd, settling on me.

“Julie. What is the one product Disney sells?” he asked.

I tried to think on the spot. Disney made movies, but it also had toys, TV shows, clothing, two theme parks …

“Movies?” I guessed.

“Wrong,” he said.

I RECENTLY finished reading Scott Westerfeld’s AFTERWORLDS.

The book is dedicated to writers, particularly NaNoWriMo participants, and tells the tale of Darcy Patel. She is a NaNoWriMo writer who succeeds in signing a book deal and moves to New York at age 18 to enter the dazzling world of YA publishing.

Basically, a book written for writers as much as for readers.

The novel features a particular passage I found engaging, in which Darcy joins a book tour with peers Stanley Anderson and Imogen Gray. The trio are conducting a Q&A at a high school when a student asks which is most important to a novel: plot, setting, character, conflict, or theme?

Stanley says plot is most important. Imogen argues that characters are the most important. Darcy says they’re both wrong: conflict is the most vital part of storytelling.

In the four pages devoted to each character answering the question, examples are given for each argument. Darcy wins the competition for giving the best answer in the book.

But her answer may not be entirely correct.

“DOES EVERYONE give up?” my professor asked.

Yes, of course we did. And now we were hooked. We needed to know the one product Disney sells.

“Characters,” my professor said. “Disney sells characters. Everything else is secondary.”

The selling point of this mug isn't so much that it's a coffee mug; it's the character on the mug.

The selling point of this mug isn’t so much that it’s a coffee mug; it’s the character on the mug.

He explained Disney releases a movie featuring new characters. Those characters then are made into toys. They are placed on T-shirts, hats, backpacks, gloves, dresses, socks. The characters stroll the theme parks, where children can meet them and get autographs. The characters become Halloween costumes. They are put on miscellaneous merchandise, like coffee mugs and phone cases. (I’ll confess: I have a Belle coffee mug that says “It’s hard to be a beauty when mornings are a beast.”)

The characters are the driving force of Disney and are sold across all of the company’s platforms.

Of everything Disney fans adore, it all comes down to the characters.

ALL FIVE ELEMENTS of a novel are important, but as I read the debate scene AFTERWORLDS, I kept thinking about Disney and its characters.

The release of SARAH & KATY AND THE IMAGINATION BLANKETS has generated fun feedback, but there has been a trend in that feedback. As people tell me their favorite parts of the book, they never mention a setting, a plot point or the conflict.

They mention their favorite characters. (So far, Destrian Wain and Dragon seem to be in the lead for favorites, although the opossums got one vote from a relative.)

As I outline my next novel, I also realize how much of the other elements stem from the characters. Portions of the setting (such as the type of house and what is inside) depends on the personality of the character. Much of the conflict depends on characters, because their decisions and actions drive conflict. The same goes for plot.

When I write a book, I am — above all else — writing characters. When readers fall in love with characters, they care about what happens to those characters in the plot. They care about the conflict in which the characters find themselves.

Writing books means writing characters. Selling books means selling characters.

One of the most important writing lessons I learned in college wasn’t even taught in a writing course:

Disney sells characters.

And books do, too.

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