There are many experiences which people read as wish fulfillment, and with each, mileage may vary. However, a general consensus grants that things like gaining wealth, fame, a love interest (probably the most variable in specifics), magical powers, heroic qualities, etc. are wishes to be fulfilled through stories. Any story can contain wish fulfillment, either as a random element or as the primary storyline. But there are two primary forms wish fulfillment can take—“individual” and “group.”
- Individual wish fulfillment consists of desirable things happening to one character in specific ways that could not (or would not) be replicated for anyone else.
- Common examples include relationships with an individual/group who for whatever reason does not normally develop such relationships; prophetic heroism and selection for a greater cause that can only happen to ‘one’; inheritances; etc.
- Individual wish fulfillment can be very indirect, in the sense that the reader gets a ‘hit’ of wish fulfillment from what is, for the character, daily life (in this case, the ‘individual’ may be part of a group, but it is not a codified experience as seen below); for example, the wealthy aristocrats of Downton Abbey show us the wish fulfillment of wealth and privilege, even though they themselves may not see it that way as it is their lives from birth (Matthew’s inheritance of this way of life is more likely the reader-proxy); another example is Mercy Thompson’s web of protectors and lifestyle, which to her is natural and occasionally annoying, but to us may be wish fulfillment.
- Examples (may) include: Twilight, Sherlock/Elementary, Fruits Basket, Ouran High School Host Club, A Discovery of Witches, Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit
- Group wish fulfillment consists of desirable things happening as a codified experience which a group of people go through together, individually but following a pattern of events.
- Most examples involve school and work settings, which have natural ‘group’ elements.
- The key is that the experience is “codified,” meaning that it follows a certain pattern of events which make up the experience (or at least the initiation to the experience), and which the reader can imagine themselves going through with their own individual spin (as opposed to having to be the individual character in Type 1).
- It should be noted that this type can include elements of the first, if the protagonist undergoes an individual wish fulfillment experience within the group experience; the best example is Harry Potter, who experiences being famous as the Chosen One while also going through the group experience of attending Hogwarts.
- Examples (may) include: Harry Potter, Star Trek, The Hunger Games, Doctor Who (a bit of a mix, as companions are individuals but follow the overall pattern), Divergent, Shadow and Bone (Grisha), The Bone Season
Once again, as always, different arguments could be made and nuances abound. Generally, I divide the two by looking at whether or not the experience can be broken into a codified pattern—joining up with Star Fleet (yes); gaining the friendship/partnership of Sherlock Holmes (no). That doesn’t mean that another character couldn’t repeat the individual experience and have a similar one (much of fanfiction abounds with this idea)—but within the world of the story, the character’s experience is treated as unique.
Sometimes, the repetition of what should be an individual experience within a society can create a codified group experience. One example is the ‘mating ritual’ of the Carpathians in Christine Feehan’s series of romance novels; in a sense, each relationship is a unique development of a bond between these two individual characters, and yet the repeated formation of the relationships with similar events (particularly the ‘conversion’ pattern) creates the feeling of a codified experience. Another example might be when a small group undergoes versions of a similar experience, thus giving a “map” of the way this experience can develop through a pattern. The only example I can think of is superhero movies; in each one, you get the sense that this is an individual experience, and yet the similar patterns within most superhero movies of the ascension to power creates a repeated experience which feels codified. It is made more obvious and direct in stories of “superhero schools.”
Which one is more successful is a trickier question. The largest literary phenomenon of all time, Harry Potter, is based on a group wish fulfillment experience that without question contributes to its success. What reader doesn’t want to get that Hogwarts letter—not as Harry Potter, but as themselves? And the story itself makes that theoretically possible, going so far as to include “muggleborns,” which the reader can of course picture as themselves. The key to a successful group experience is to craft something which everyone might want to experience; though you can never know what everyone would want to experience, the more variability and positivity, the better (as long as the story stands as well). But keep in mind that you can use the protagonist’s individual journey to add even more positivity (as long as you add more negativity to balance it out)—Harry doesn’t just get to go to Hogwarts, he also gets to be rich and famous (and a hunted orphan).
Individual wish fulfillment experiences can be harder to make widely desirable. Twilight was certainly a phenomenon, but while fans find the experience of having a protective vampire boyfriend sweet and charming, its detractors find it disturbing and abusive. Romantic wish fulfillment is probably the most individual as far as preferences go, and while certain stories seem to hit a vein of popular sentiment (Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey being the most prominent examples), the romance genre is overflowing with multitudes of various examples, most of which don’t break out of the crowd (you could argue that the ‘alpha hero’ type which is par-for-the-course in the romance genre is close to a codified experience, but that’s another topic for another day).
An individual experience that readers want to have will strike a chord with fandom, who will either envision themselves as that individual character, invent an original character who goes through a similar (or the exact same) experience in place of the individual character, or simply play around with the characters as a pleased overseer (I would argue this last one occurs most often with homoerotic couples within a mostly female fandom, as opposed to heterosexual canon couples where the female character is usually seen as a reader proxy, while the males in the homoerotic couple are both invested in). Group experiences may be easier for theme parks and MMORPG’s, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say they are inherently more popular. They just make the fandom experience a little easier in some respects, especially in participation (consider the propagation of selecting your Hogwarts house).
In the end, a good story will win out over any wish fulfillment (and wish fulfillment will not find a fandom without a good story to deliver it). But adding some in can make the story fun for you and for your readers, and so it’s worth thinking about. 🙂