I took a lot of writing classes in college, and I think that in just about every one that I took, the professor pointed out that the world is made up of both men and women, but beginning writers typically only write stories for people of their own sex. That’s because they are used to reading stories primarily about people of their own sex.
But think about it: why would you want write to a small audience?
Currently the earth has seven billion, five hundred and thirty million people in it. Of those people, over half are women.
It only makes economic sense that if you could capture readers of both sexes, you would more than double your income.
Of course, not all authors want to capture readers of both sexes. There are men who are only interested in writing for other men. Women are too hard to understand, and as authors we’re afraid that we won’t be able to write about them convincingly. The same goes for women. Some women don’t feel that they can write stories that will engage men.
So we tend to write stories about people who are of our same sex, and roughly our same age.
Some authors take it much further. I happen to be a Mormon. I know lots of Mormons who are so deeply rooted in their own culture, that they couldn’t write authentically about someone who was an atheist, a Catholic, or a Muslim. So these authors tend to write for the five million people who belong to their church. But with such a small audience to draw from, very few of them can make a living.
And that’s the crux of the problem: the smaller the audience you write for, the tougher it is to support your writing habit. You want to write a novel that could only really be appreciated by Texans, you’ve got a fairly small audience. You want to narrow it further and say it’s just for men. The audience gets smaller still. You want to decide that it’s only for men who like polyester, and it shrinks farther.
So I suggest that you look for ways to expand your audience rather than minimize it. Here are a couple of authors who did just that. Let’s take J. K. Rowling first.
In chapter 1 of Harry Potter, if I recall correctly, three people gather together to leave a child on the doorstep of a muggle family. One is the aging headmaster of a school for wizards. The second is a woman of similar age, and the third is middle-aged giant. Though young Harry Potter himself is only a babe, he takes the center stage not because he’s the viewpoint character, but because a) he’s the one that the others are talking about, b) he is so powerful even as a baby, that he has just killed a Dark Lord.
Do you see what Rowling has done? She has inhabited her scene with people of diverse backgrounds, from newborn babes to graybeards, both male and female. The group is small enough to be intimate, large enough to give us diversity.
She then continues with this throughout the books. Harry grows up in a nasty household, is rescued by wizards, and soon meets a nice cast of friends and enemies–once again of varying ages and sexes.
The reason for this should be obvious, but in case it is not, here it goes: The easiest way to engage a member of a particular demographic is to write about a character that the reader can develop a rooting interest in, and the easiest way to gain rooting interest is to show that this person is somehow like the reader.
In short, we almost always grow attached to people who are like us. Women tend to feel more strongly for other women–women who are their age or slightly younger. It’s easier to empathize with such characters. And of course men tend to empathize with other men.
Not only that, we tend to empathize with people of our own nationality. Once again, Rowling populates her story with people from diverse cultures, having tournaments where the English battle competitors from other nations. You’ll meet people from Ireland, France, Soviet Bloc countries, Asia, and India in her stories.
In short, as an author she learned early on to try to capture wide demographics–both male and female, old and young.
Here’s another writer who learned to maximize his audience: James Cameron. I recall back in 1997 watching the movie Titanic for the first time. Cameron doesn’t cater particularly to children, but he did do something interesting. In populating his ship, he shows immigrants crossing the oceans from dozens of nations–France, Spain, Germany, Italy, India, China, and so on. He makes it a massive multicultural event. As an English speaker, you might not notice what he did. After all, each of these families that are shown get only a few seconds of screen time. Sometimes, they are simply heard and seen in passing. Yet we see them, we hear them, and their stories get woven into the fabric of a greater tale.
As I watched what Cameron did, I was impressed at how gracefully he braided these stories together. I recall thinking, “He’s going to set international sales records with this. I wonder if the studios know it?” Of course, they did know it. In fact, they did something unprecedented with the movie: they released it all across the world, translated into dozens of languages, all on the same day.
The result was that Titanic doubled the sales of the next best-selling movie of all time.
It didn’t take much work on his part. He simply populated his story with people from dozens of countries. In fact, if you will sit down and watch it, you’ll note something interesting. The largest sales territories for selling movies are: the United States, England, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, and Australia–pretty much in that order. If you watch the movie and count, you’ll notice that actors from all of those nations are present in the movie. In short, Cameron wove them into the film in order to guarantee good distribution in those realms.
Now, I have to admit, that I’ve sometimes done the same. I do it subtly sometimes, but I do it. If you read The Runelords, you’ll note that I have characters with English and Scottish names, mostly, but among the royalty we have people like Gaborn Val Orden–a German name–which is very important. For you see, if you look closely at the language of Mordor, the orcs speak a distinctly Germanic-sounding language, and authors who tried to imitate Tolkien used the same ploy for decades. As a result, every German who reads a fantasy novel feels somehow victimized. At some level, he must recognize that “I am the goblin.” I also use other names from various cultures–Iome, a French name, or Ahten, an Egyptian name. If you pay attention to accents and sentence structures, you’ll see that characters’ voices often hark back to their roots.
But I don’t just weave multiculturalism into a few names, I weave it into the very fabric of the story. For example, I have one powerful subplot dealing with Sir Borenson, a man whose honor is tested to the core in a very oriental way. I wrote it hoping to appeal to a Japanese and Chinese audience. Five years ago, I was invited to China to see about making the book into a movie. In that visit, I was introduced to a man named Fong Li, who is China’s foremost producer–their Steven Spielberg, so to speak. Fong Li had my screenplay translated into Chinese before my visit, and so he had a chance to read the story. When we met that morning, he politely bowed–a custom that is not commonly practiced in China anymore since the cultural revolution. As he bowed, dozens of businessmen fell back in astonishment and gasped. You see, Fong Li has a reputation for being a very proud man. When receiving China’s highest honors for artistic achievement, he refused to bow to the premiere. So the notion that this man who would bow to no one would bow to me . . . well, it dropped a few jaws.
So I asked him why he bowed to me. His answer was simple. “No Western writer has ever understood the heart of the Asian as you do. This movie will be the most popular American film ever to hit China–far bigger than Star Wars, far bigger than Jurassic Park.” I was delighted to hear it. I’d spent months studying the concepts of honor–giri and gimu–as taught by the Japanese. I quite frankly still find myself very much attracted to their code. So I was happy to see how deeply the story had touched him.
As a result of this bow, something odd happened. Within four hours, the script for the movie was rushed through China’s censorship board and approved not only for filming in China but for distribution. Normally, this process takes years. It takes two years to get a script approved for filming, and then once the film is made, it can take another nine months for approval. But based upon Fong Li’s estimation of the story, we made history. Not only was the movie approved for distribution before it was filmed, the approval process was all done before we finished lunch.
So one key to enlarging your audience is to create a diverse cast of characters, but there are other more-subtle approaches to writing for a global audience.
Note: Fyrecon is attempting to get a grant. All you have to do is click the “like” button after clicking on this link. In January, I will be releasing my latest book, Casting Your Novel which helps with character development. I also have had my Serpent Catch series bundled which you can find by clicking on this link.