The Ethics of Character Blogs to Promote Your Books

For one of the books I'm working on, I've thought about launching a character blog before I either pitch to publishers or decide to self-publish. I'd like to explore the potential ethical issues of a character blog and see what others here think about them.

What is a Character Blog?

A character blog is a blog authored by a fictional character - in this case, a character from a book. In some cases, the readers aren't told publicly on the site that the author is a fictional character, and that the blog posts deal with fictional situations. In other cases, it's clear on the blog that the author and content are both fictional.

Are Character Blogs Ethical?

This was tough for me at first. Coming from a PR background where I'm known for always siding with blunt honesty and transparency, the idea of a character blog can seem to be a bit unethical. On the issue of transparency, it would seem that at a bare minimum you would have to be honest about who you are as a blogger when communicating with your audience.

Then there's the side of me that works as a writer. I've ghostwritten work. I've written under pseudonyms. If a character blog is unethical, then wouldn't both ghostwriting and pen names be equally unethical?

I'd say so.

That's why I choose to look at it this way - the PR side of me occasionally needs to shut up and allow the creative side to take control. Writing is an art form, and blogs are becoming just another creative outlet - after all, there's no one type of blog or purpose of blogs.


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So I'm OK with character blogs - even those that don't make their fictional basis known up front. As a matter of fact, I think growing a character blog really relies on it not being exposed as such too quickly.

For example, what I'm considering is running a character blog before publishing for one of two reasons:

  1. If I choose to pitch publishers, I'll have a built-in audience for promotional purposes - I can show the publisher that I have decent reach with the market, have demonstrated a desire for the content and character, etc. (similar to email newsletter subscribers for a nonfiction release).
  2. If I choose to self-publish, I have a built-in audience of potential buyers I can promote the book to directly.

The only thing I'm not sure about is whether or not I'll have some small mention somewhere about it being a fictional blog, or if I'll wait on that until the blog starts to take off a bit.

What are your thoughts on character blogs for promoting a book? Have you used one? Do you plan to? Do you have any ethical issues with running a fictional blog and simply considering it another form of creative writing with some creative freedom? Would you tell people on the blog that it's a character blog? If so, when?

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.

She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.

8 Comments

  1. Brian F. July 28, 2008 Reply

    I thought the marketing behind THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was brilliant, blurring the line between reality and fiction. There were many people who were convinced (and, I think, some who still are) that the “backstory” to the movie was true. I guess I don’t think there’s an ethical problem with this–most of what you read on the internet is an elaborate fiction anyway–but it could come back to bite you in the toukiss if readers who became attached to the character, thinking them to be real, feel betrayed and decide NOT to read the book when it comes out. One of the reasons the BWP marketing worked is because, even while watching the movie, it was unclear whether it was real or not. Doing a fake character, leading to a book release, immediately makes it clear that it was all a set-up.

    There have been several great online fictional characters who’ve simply been marketing tools. Look at LonelyGirl15 or the Court TV viral blog “That Girl Emily” that featured a wronged woman getting revenge on her cheating husband. So it can be done effectively but those were less about selling an eventual end product (although the Court TV thing was about advertising a show) such as what you’re suggesting.

    I’m a little skeptical about “If I choose to self-publish, I have a built-in audience of potential buyers I can promote the book to directly.” Creating a substantial enough built in audience via such a blog will be difficult at best. Thousands of blogs are created every day and most end up being read by the blogger and the blogger’s mother. Even the most popular blogs took a long time to gain an audience which would be substantial enough to warrant any kind of publishing success.

    In my mind, it’s not so much a question of ethics as it is a question of cheesy. I think character blogs or MySpace profiles tend to get overdone and I think it tends to get done not very well. Ultimately, I don’t understand (and I may be saying this as a reader) what it accomplishes. If a character blog is to disseminate backstory that didn’t make it into the book, why not just label it fiction? What does it add to my experience as a reader if I think it’s real and then find out it was all made up?

  2. Jennifer Mattern July 28, 2008 Reply

    I can see your point of being skeptical, but in reality that’s the area I’m least worried about. I’ve been blogging for years, have run dozens of successful blogs, and my background in marketing and PR has always given me an edge in knowing how to build an audience effectively. On the other hand, would I suggest an author with no blogging experience go this route? Probably not. At the same time, there’s no excuse for any kind of author not to embrace social media and find a way to make it work for them, whether that be a character blog, author blog, social networks, or whatever tools strike their fancy and reach their target audience.

    I actually disagree about them being overdone. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we see nearly enough. It’s relatively unexplored by most authors.

    And as for what it adds to the experience of a reader, this is the PR side of it – it opens the door to interaction and conversation. Readers can ask the character(s) questions. They can comment on more specific story elements. They can continue the story even after the book ends, or read more as a bridge between releases in a series. Obviously between stories you would know it’s fictional. But I think giving that away too soon actually potentially kills the pre-launch buzz aspect of a character blog.

  3. Lillie Ammann July 28, 2008 Reply

    Jennifer,
    I think as a reader, I would be not want to continue to read a character blog or buy the book if it was originally presented as true then turns out to be fiction. I would feel tricked … and probably a lttle stupid for being hoodwinked. In a mystery, the secret is to present the solution of the crime so that the reader doesn’t feel stupid for not figuring it out and doesn’t feel tricked by a solution that had no clues leading to it. Maybe you could do a character blog that gave enough clues that readers wouldn’t feel tricked. If not, you’d lose me as a reader.

    I see your point about ghostwriting—and I think whether or not ghostwriting is ethical depends on the input of the “author” named on the cover. If a guru in some field hires a ghostwriter to research and write an e-book and then sells the book under the name of the guru … I think that’s unethical. Readers are epecting—and probably paying a high price—to learn from a guru. On the other hand, if the guru gives the ghostwriter information on the content, I think that’s ethical because the writer is just presenting the guru’s material more effectively.

    If no one claims ownership—as is the case in most business copy—then I don’t think it matters who writes the material.

    But if readers are being deceived … to me, that’s unethical.

  4. Edie Dykeman July 29, 2008 Reply

    Jennifer,

    Debbie Macomber has her characters writing letters to the reader in their own voice, giving more background or bringing the reader up to date. But, I think the books came first.

    However, if you wrote a compelling blog introducing the characters and getting the readers excited for more, that just may work. I think the reader should know it’s fiction, and maybe with small hints of what is to come (in the book), you might be able to carry a very engaging blog and generate interest.

    Would the reader need to go to the blog, or would there be some way to send out the story as you do your newsletter. Would readers willingly keep coming back to the blog without a reminder?

    The challenge would seem to hinge around drawing readers in with exciting characters and story line that wouldn’t take away their desire to read the book.

    Good luck. Sounds like an interesting challenge.

    Edie Dykeman

  5. Jennifer Mattern July 30, 2008 Reply

    I’m not sure if I really look at it as deceiving readers anymore than a blogger using a pseudonym or just a handle. I suppose I look at it this way:

    From a strict PR perspective, blogs should always be fully transparent. Then again, they’re also about engagement, and I wonder – do you think you’d get nearly as much engagement by advertising that it’s fictional? (not saying anything one way or the other – just playing devil’s advocate today)

    But blogs aren’t strictly PR tools. They’re also marketing tools. And would it be more effective marketing-wise (which means bringing in sales) if you kept the fictional aspect quiet, or if you made that clear? (again, thinking about character blogs coming out before a book – once the book’s out, there’s no point in trying to keep it quiet, unless of course you’ve used the character as a pseudonym in autobiographical style).

    And let’s look at blogs another way. In simple terms, a blog is nothing more than a publishing platform. There have always been good cases for privacy when blogging about personal things, and if it’s nothing but a publishing platform, shouldn’t blogs be completely open for creative use, as pretty much any other platform is? (think of YouTube videos that get big with “characters” made out to be real folks) Is simple creativity through social media really such a bad thing?

    And let’s look at something else – if an author does choose to make it known on the blog that it’s written by a fictional character, exactly how obvious does it have to be? Can the blog still look like a legitimate blog, or do you think it has to look more like a marketing vehicle clearly up front? Is a casual mention on the About page or something enough?

    Should the actual author be named? In all cases? Should an author make it clear they intend to publish a book (again, thinking about these blogs before publication, where publication may very well not be a sure thing yet)? Or is it ok to just build up an audience for a fictional blogger (as long as readers know it’s fictional), and then spring the book on them later? (Several blogs have “happened” to get turned into book deals, so why not a character blog?)

    And what about blogs where it’s very obviously fiction (think supernatural characters or a setting in some alternate world)? Should they play by the same rules as a character blog that looks like it could be a real person simply blogging?

    And what if the book does have a lot of (albeit embellished) autobiographical elements (and let’s face it – lots of blogs are “embellished”)? Does the author still have to come out and say it’s fictional, or can they essentially be blogging about themselves, but under a pen name?

    I know there are a lot of questions there. My point is this – I don’t think anyone can really say any element of a character blog is necessarily “wrong.” There are a lot of personal factors with every author and ever book as to the best way to handle them. Transparent or not, I’d really like to see far more authors using them to inject a bit of creativity into the blogosphere. Niche blogs and personal blogs are fine and dandy, but why not also visit more blogs for the sake of a good story?

    Something else I wonder is how character blogs can be leveraged as an income stream for writers. Looking at self-published writers specifically (no advances and such to speak of), could they almost earn more if they’d published their stories in blog format on a well-monetized blog, or is selling hard copies still the best option for them financially? I know a lot of folks think making money from blogs is nearly impossible still. I’ve managed to very successfully monetize blogs in multiple niches in the past, so that’s the “experiment” side of this for me if / when I finally do it for one of my stories – seeing how I’m able to earn from a fictional / creative writing blog in comparison to a niche blog, and if there are “creative” ways to bring those income streams in.

    Lots to think about on this topic.

  6. lethe bashar September 15, 2008 Reply

    I am writing an elaborate character blog running on three separate websites under the name of my alter ego Lethe Bashar. You can see I’ve signed my name as Lethe in this post. Also if you go to my face book page you will see that I am Lethe Bashar there.

    There are several reasons for my pseudonymity. First of all, I am not looking to publish in the traditional way right now. I am concentrating all my energies in the cyberrealms. I consider myself an online novelist and my work calls for a new marketing paradigm. Word of Mouth is everything in this new model. I’ve created Facebook groups around my character and even communicate with other writers using that name.

    Recently I was reading an article in the New York Times magazine. The article was about facebook, twitter and the “ambient awareness” of online culture. Everyone knows everything, even the mundane details of your life, because you put them out there for everyone to see. The author made the point that it’s becoming impossible to conceal yourself because of these new technologies.

    Here are some interesting snippets: “This is the ultimate effect of the new awareness: It brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everyone knows your business.”

    And here: “When cyberspace came along in the early 90’s, it was celebrated as a place where you could reinvent your identity–become someone new. ‘If anything, it’s identity-constraining now,”.

    And so, I see my fiction on the Internet as working within the context of the rise of this online culture and a response to it. I choose not to constrain myself and I do so by fictionalizing my history and my past but also blending it indistinguishably into my present. I’m not trying to pass myself off as someone I’m not. Instead, I’m making my art my self, and my self my art.

    Your welcome to visit my site and see what I’ve done.

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