How to get to know your audience
As a new writer, you might not have given a great deal of thought to audience analysis. I’ve known good writers who don’t seem to understand it at all.
For example, one #1 New York Times Bestselling fantasy author right now insists that he doesn’t write fantasy. He has magic in his stories, and dragons—but he insists that he is writing real literature. And he is right to suggest that he’s writing real literature. Just because a story has fantastic elements in it, doesn’t mean that it needs to be relegated to the literary trash heap. Some of the best writers of all time were fantasists—Tolkien, Homer, Shakespeare. But at the same time, if you’re writing about dragons and wizards folks, you’re writing for a fantasy audience.
So it helps to know your audience. It helps to know their tastes, and there are a number of things that . . . control their tastes.
To give you an idea of what I mean, let’s analyze an audience by age.
When you’re a child—between the ages of 0 and 11—you’re in what I will call the “discovery” phase of life, a time when much of the world seems strange and new to you. In some ways, the world seems boundless, because every time that you turn around you learn about some new wonder or some new region of the world that you have never heard about. And so children in that age are predisposed to what I, and a few others, call “wonder literature.”
In wonder literature, the main emotional draw (outside of the essential story itself) is typically that it arouses a sense of wonder. Hence, stories set in fantastic settings are extremely interesting to children. But when you encounter something new—say a new animal—there is more than one possible outcome to the encounter.
- 1) The encounter can in some way be more satisfying than you had imagined. (In which case a sense of wonder is aroused.)
- 2) The encounter can twist away from your expectations in a way that is neither wondrous nor terrible. (In which case a laugh is usually evoked.)
- 3) The encounter can be more painful or traumatizing than you had imagined possible. (In which case terror or horror are aroused.)
Because of this young readers, by virtue of age alone, are biologically predisposed to be drawn to works of wonder (fantasy or science fiction), humor, and horror. Those are the largest draws for them.
As a child reaches puberty, sexual interest becomes a powerful emotional draw. In young men, testosterone leads the boys to become more combative and competitive than the girls. So for young women, romance rapidly becomes a predominant draw, while for young men a combination of adventure and pornography tend to be more appealing.
Sure, the readers may be interested in having their romances placed in fantastic settings—witness the popularity of Pirates of the Caribbean—but the romance and sexual angles are as important as the fantasy. By the mid-twenties, the draw for fantastic literature is no longer overwhelming, and people in that age range may quit reading fantastic literature altogether. Men may begin picking up thrillers instead of science fiction, while women lean toward straight contemporary romances.
As your audience ages, the sexual draws gradually fail to reel the reader. In part, it’s because of the falling hormone levels in adults. A woman at forty is nearing menopause, and the male at fifty is reaching a hormonal crisis of his own. They lose interest in sex. Instead, adults who are raising their own children are confronted with myriad problems—how do I teach my child to get along with others? Why doesn’t my husband ask for directions when he gets lost? And so on. Older readers tend to be more thoughtful, more grounded in reality, and more interested in stories that have practical applications to their own lives.
Older women tend to become more interested in mysteries and dramas as they reach their forties, and men’s taste in fiction soon follows.
Thus, as you begin to try to categorize your audience, you can see that the emotional draws to your story—wonder, humor, horror, adventure, romance, mystery, suspense, and drama—need to appeal to your target audience.
You want to write a story that doesn’t have a hope of success? Try aiming a contemporary family drama at six-year-olds. Yet it happens all the time. A fifty-year-old grandmother decides that she wants to write a childrens’ book, and what does she write: a story about a kid who has to try to save the farm from ruin during the depression. She loves drama, so she writes drama—completely unaware as to why children stay away from her book in droves.
In the same way, wonder literature for the over-sixty crowd tends to win few fans, too.
If you want to succeed, pay attention to what the most powerful emotional draws are for your audience age, and cater to their tastes.
In fact, human predilections toward certain emotional draws at given ages are a valuable indicator of how well stories will perform in the market. In Hollywood, advertising firms can predict how well a film will do simply by taking a look at a commercial, counting the number and types of each emotional beat, multiplying that number by the percentage of audience members who are drawn to each of the given types of emotional beats, and multiplying that by the “reach” of the film (a measurement of how many times a given commercial is likely to be viewed by potential audience members). When all is said, a raw score is used as a comparative to other movies, and based on such comparisons, marketing firms are able to guess within about 5 percentage points how well a film will do during its first two opening weeks.
With novels, we don’t do marketing research to the same degree. We don’t have the kind of money that it takes to run a Hollywood style “greenlight analysis” on a novel in order to figure out whether our books will draw a huge audience. But as novelists, we really should know how to analyze our own audience.