What Makes a Bestseller? Fifty Shades as a Case Study

Did you ever wonder what makes a book a bestseller? The New York Times, in the article The Greatest Mystery:Making a Best Seller, claims that “no one really knows.” Some might say it is luck or an intensive PR campaign. These two elements play a major role in turning a book into a massive market success, but there is more to it than just these. I believe that the answer can be more scientifically measured. In my opinion a story should contain four key elements to make it more appealing to the masses. These elements are very basic and most writers are aware of them, but it’s the combination of all these together that makes a story powerful, memorable, and influential. These elements are:

1.     A well constructed Hero’s Journey
2.     Symbols
3.     Archetypes
4.     Mythological & literary allusions

Let’s explore these terms.

The Hero’s Journey is a pattern of a story, identified by mythology scholar Joseph Campbell who recognized that stories from different cultures carry the same structure. He gathered his findings in his famous book The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949). Based on this work, Christopher Vogler wrote his book The Writer’s Journey (1998) where he describes the 12 major stages of the Hero’s Journey in a story.

A symbol is a letter, number, or figure that contains more meaning than its literal sense. Symbolism is the act of infusing an element with broader significance than it initially has.

Example:  Star of David is a symbol that is identified with Judaism and represents one’s belief in higher power: the six exterior triangles represent the physical world (some say they stand for north, south, east, west, up, and down), while the center of it represents a higher power or God.

An archetype is a universal prototype of a character or a situation that contains timeless and universal recognized truths.

Example: Femme Fatale is an archetype of a beautiful mysterious and seductive woman who uses her charm to trap men and bring about their downfall.

Mythology is a collection of stories (myths or mythological stories) that belongs to a certain culture, like the bible, Greek and Norse mythologies, and fairy tales. These stories contain universal and timeless truths. A myth doesn’t necessarily have to be an ancient story. Some more recent stories carry strong messages that impact the psyche of humanity and influence it for generations, hence turning them into a modern myth – such as Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice or George Lucas’ Star Wars.
Allusion – is the act of referring to something without explicitly saying what it is.
Mythological/Literal Allusion in a story – is when the plot, or an element in it, reminds the reader of another existing story. It is a way to thicken the plot with  more layers of meanings.

Example: the movie Pretty Woman has a strong allusion to the fairy tale Cinderella; it shares similar story elements of a poor woman being saved by a well-to-do man who turns her into a princess/lady.

All these elements are part of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is a term coined by the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. It means that all human beings unconsciously share a deep understanding of a universal language of symbols and archetypes that are a naturally inseparable part of timeless stories and myths.

It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.

(Joseph Campbell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces)


Fifty Shades as a Case Study

I would like to demonstrate how these four elements are manifested in the Fifty Shades story. The Fifty Shades series by E L James (pen name of the British author Erika Mitchell) is an international bestseller, with over 126 million copies sold. The movie that was based on the first book in the series made more than 500 million dollars. The series contains three books - Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed - that are told from Anastasia’s (the heroine) point of view, and a fourth book – Grey - that tells the story of the first book in the series from Christian’s (the hero) point of view.

For those of you who are not familiar with the plot, here is a very brief summary: it is an erotic love story between Ana (Anastasia), a young romantic woman, and Christian, a young successful businessman who has BDSM sexual preferences. The story is the journey of both protagonists trying to find balance between their conflicting desires: romantic love vs. domineering relationship. The story ends with salvation – when they find love and healing in each other’s arms.

The books were widely criticized for their poor language, and yet they turned out to be a huge market success. There is something in the story that captivated readers from around the world. In my opinion, the success of the story is due to the fact that it is heavily loaded with symbols, archetypes, and literary allusions and has a compelling Hero’s Journey. Though E L James did a conscious use of mythological and literary allusions in her book, such as referring to old English classics (Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles), Greek Mythology (Icarus), and Arthurian legends (the knight in shiny armor), I doubt she was conscious of using most of the symbols, archetypes, and literary allusions in her story. In this case, I would say that luck was on her side. Somehow she managed to tap unconsciously to this universal language of images that we all recognize and relate to. Here I would like to illustrate how each of the four elements that I have mentioned above is manifested in this story.

The Hero’s Journey – Christian’s path to healing and true love

Instead of describing all of Vogler’s 12 stages of plot development and demonstrating them in the story, I would like to mention a few crucial points in Christian’s personal journey.

The ordinary world – is where the story begins by describing the everyday life of the hero. In Fifty Shades Christian is a busy and wealthy businessman who doesn’t do romance, but rather prefers submissive women who sign a contract before entering a sexual liaison with him.

The Call to Adventure – is an event in the hero’s life that disturbs his routine and pushes him into a new adventure, an adventure/journey that eventually will change his life. When Christian meets Ana the strong physical attraction between them causes him to pursue her fiercely, despite the fact that he recognizes that she is not made of submissive material. At this stage he still convinces himself that she can be trained.

The Ordeal, or in its other name - Belly of the Whale, happens usually in the middle of the story, where the hero faces his biggest fear or confronts death – literally or metaphorically. This is the lowest point in the story from which the hero rises up to deal with the real challenge that is in front of him. In Fifty Shades it happens by the end of the first book and the beginning of the second book; when Ana breaks up with Christian he is left heart broken. At this point he realizes that he loves her, a feeling he had no idea he was capable of. He is willing to do anything to have her back in his life – including neglecting his initial intention to have a domineering/submissive liaison and instead do his best to have a romantic relationship with Ana, a novelty for him. The emotional crisis that Christian went through eventually led to his personal growth. This crisis is what Robert Bly calls in his book Iron John “the deep moist.” According to Bly many people carry an old wound from childhood. The only way to heal it is by going down – descending - and touching the most painful spot in one’s soul. For Christian, Ana’s abandonment is painful because it touches an old wound of being abandoned by his mother as a young child. That pain forces him to deal with his wound and pushes the plot towards its happy ending.

Symbol – the number 50

There are many symbols scattered around the story, like wine, which is the symbol of Dionysus, and heights, which are the symbols Zeus – I’ll get to these two symbols in the following section where I discuss archetypes. But here I would like to focus on one major symbol in the story.

The number 50 appears in the title.  It is a repeating motif throughout the story. In the first book Christian describes his messed up personality as ‘fifty shades of gray.’ From that point on Ana calls him ‘fifty.’  The story ends in the third book with Christian being freed of his fifty shades, as appropriate to an ending of a love story that brings salvation.

In Judaism the number 50 symbolizes freedom and salvation. One of the stories that back up this symbol appears in the book of Exodus.  The Israelites accept the Torah on Mt. Sinai on the 50th day to their escape out of Egypt. On day 50, which is marked in the Jewish calendar by the holiday of Shavu’ot, they are officially released from slavery and become the chosen people.  Fifty Shades is also an exodus story of one man from his tormenting wound towards freedom.

For more on the subject read Who Knows 50?

Archetypes – Apollo, Zeus, and Dionysus

In the story Ana repeatedly compares herself to Icarus. In the Greek Mythology, Icarus and his master craftsman father Daedalus escape Crete with wings that Daedalus created from feathers and wax. Before they take off, Daedalus warns Icraus not to fly too close to the sun to avoid the wax melting from the heat. Icarus, excited from his ability to fly so high, forgets his father’s cautioning and gets too close to the sun. When the heat of the sun melts the wax, Icarus loses his wings and sinks into the sea, where he meets his death. This analogy, together with other descriptions of Christian, links him to Apollo - the handsome, athletic, charismatic, and successful God of the Sun. Another archetype from Greek Mythology that exists in Christian is Zeus, the powerful God of the Sky: in the story Christian is linked to high places from where he overlooks the world beneath him – such as his office in a high-rise building and his penthouse in downtown Seattle. He also flies a helicopter. Like Zeus, Christian is also the all mighty powerful man who seduces all the women he desires.

Another archetype in the story is Dionysus. Dionysus was the God of Wine and Ecstasy who drove the women around him to madness.  Christian is a wine connoisseur; there are many episodes throughout the story where he serves or orders wine. Like Dionysus, Christian also has the ability to drive women to become madly in love with him: Lily - his sister Mia’s friend, Gretchen - his parents’ housekeeper, Leila – his ex submissive, and even Ana questions her sanity many times throughout the story. The theme song of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey – Crazy in Love, is very befitting to the Dionysus archetype.

There is another interesting aspect of the Dionysus archetype that is present in Christian’s character. In her book Gods in Everyman, Jungian psychiatrist Jean Shinoda Bolen describes this archetype as a man who has mother issues, a man who is looking to find his mother in every woman he falls in love with. Christian, as we learn in the story, picks up subs that physically look like his late mother – a drug addict prostitute who neglected him as a child. Ana, with her dark hair and blue eyes, also fits this motherly image. His abusive behavior towards the women in his life is his unconscious way to punish his mother.

Mythological Allusion – Beauty and the Beast & Jane Eyre

Fifty Shades started out as Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight fan fiction. The term fan fiction refers to the act of readers who write their own spin off on their favorite story. The original name of the story was Master of the Universe, but as the plot developed its own separated identity and uniqueness it became what we know now as Fifty Shades. The two stories still share some commonalities – like geographical location, as both take place in the State of Washington (Forks and Seattle), and the conflict of the hero, who is attracted to the heroine but knows that he should steer away from her (Edward because he was a vampire and Christian because of his sexual preferences).

I want to bring your attention to two additional allusions in the story (two of many more), one allusion to an ancient tale and another to an English Classics novel.

Beauty and the Beast

In Fifty Shades Darker, the second book in the series, there is a scene where Christian shows Ana the library in his house. Ana is a book lover, who majored in English and works in a publishing house, really appreciates the library and makes good use of it.

This scene is similar to a scene in Beauty and the Beast. The beast becomes fond of Belle and wants to make her happy. Knowing how much Belle loves books he decides to show her the library in his palace.  Beauty and the Beast is a very old story; scientists suspect it’s more than 4,000 years old. The reason this story survived so long is because it holds some universal timeless truths. The major theme in this story is the ability to see a person for what he or she truly is. When people are able to do so they bring salvation to their lives. Belle manages to sees the beauty of the beast beyond his ugly façade, and the beast manages to recognize the smart and kind woman that Belle is, beyond just her pretty façade. Their ability to see right into the soul of the person in front of them opens their hearts to unconditional love, thus removing the curse from the beast and turning him back to the prince he was before. This love affair also saves Belle from the harassment of Gaston, who only sees her as a pretty accessory to augment his already inflated ego (Gaston, by the way, is a much later addition to the original story, just like Sir Lancelot in King Arthur’s story).

In Fifty Shades, the ability of Ana to see the real sweet and kind man Christian is, beyond his wealth and sexual kinkiness, and Christian’s willingness to accept Ana on her terms, opens the door for them to have a deep and meaningful love affair. Their relationship eventually offers healing to both of them. Through Ana’s unconditional love, Christian is able to face the demons from his past and heal. Ana in return gets a man that truly gets her and pushes her to fulfill her talents and desires.

Jane Eyre 

In Fifty Shades Darker we are introduced to Leila – a past submissive of Christian who loses her sanity and starts to haunt Ana. There is a scene in which Leila shows up in Ana and Christian’s bedroom at night. When Ana sees her, she thinks the image of the woman in front of her is a dream.

This scene is similar to a scene from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Bertha, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester, manages to escape the attic, where she is locked up, and shows up at night in Jane’s room. 

In both stories there is a mad woman from the man’s past, a woman that both Christian and Mr. Rochester did not want their young and naïve current woman to know about. According to Carl Jung, all figures in a dream or in a story represent part of our psyche. What is the significance of the mad woman from the past who shows up in the happy present and almost ruins this bliss? Maybe it is to tell that you can not achieve a complete happiness without confronting all the demons from your past.

To learn more on this subject read The Madwoman in the Attic by literary researchers Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.


By now I hope you are able to see how complex the story of Fifty Shades is, more than it initially seems. By including the four crucial key elements I mention above: Hero’s Journey, symbols, archetypes, and mythological & literary allusions, E L James managed to create a powerful story that captured the attention of millions of readers from around the world. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to declare that E L James has created a new mythological story. For those who criticized the poor language in the story, my answer is that mythology, like folk tales, is by nature popular fiction. It is not meant to be high literature. It uses simple language on purpose - to appeal to the masses.

As I stated before, I doubt E L James was aware of all the meanings infused in the story. Nevertheless, both writers and editors who want their story to appeal to the masses should make a conscious effort to infuse it with as many layers of universal and timeless images as possible. In my opinion this is the formula that makes a book a bestseller.

A challenge for you:
Can you think of more symbols, archetypes, or literary allusion in the story that I haven’t mentioned here?