In my blog post last month, I wrote that audience is a necessary, though problematic, consideration for the author. A quick recap—written communication changes, depending on the audience. The way you say something will depend on who’s reading. In some cases (genre fiction), audience expectations will actually shape the finished piece, from pacing to plot outcome.
But let’s assume that everything I’ve said about the audience is entirely wrong. Is there a different way of looking at your readers? Do you need to look at them at all?
In his celebrated book, On Writing, Stephen King explains that he writes for an “ideal reader.” In his case, his reader is a real person—his wife, Tabitha. When writing, King keeps his wife in mind. Will she be frightened? What will make her cry?
The ideal reader might change, depending on the project. (If I’m writing an email to my boss, I definitely have a perfect reader in mind!) It could be argued that King’s reader is a way of personifying audience expectations. Does that personification differ significantly from genre audience analysis?
For a different view, I’ll reference Umberto Eco’s excellent series of essays, Postscript to The Name of the Rose, where the author described his writing process in-depth. His novel (later made into a movie) began with a single notion. “I felt like poisoning a monk.” His previous scholarship had focused on the Middle Ages, so he decided his novel would be set in that period.
He began building his fictive world with the belief, Rem tene, verba sequentur — know the subject and the words will follow. His novel’s internal constraints, necessary for consistency, included historical accuracy, which placed the narrative in November of 1327. Why November? Eco needed a pig slaughtered “so that the corpse could be thrust, head down, into a jar of blood.” (A sign of the apocalypse.) Pigs weren’t usually slaughtered in warm weather. So, his story took shape—particulars made necessary by other plot elements and by history.
Did Eco think of the audience? Yes. He purposely made the first 100 pages challenging to read. (“If somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace.”) The first 100 pages were an initiation (or penance) for the reader.
Rather than imagine an ideal reader, Eco constructed “a reader suitable for what comes after,” wanting to “reveal to his public what it should want.” For Eco, his audience would be people who liked to read books like the one he wrote.
This reminds me of an old boss who told me during the interview, “This job is going to be harder than any job you’ll ever have, and we don’t pay much.” He wanted the kind of person who’d say yes to that kind of job offer.
Which brings us full circle. I think that all of the thoughts on audience that I’ve presented are valid but limited.
For example, I understand that knowing the audience is crucial to marketing a book. Still, then, I don’t know a damned thing about how to sell a book. Every time I’ve tried to write a formula-driven story pleasing the audience coveted above all else, the work was stillborn. Over the three decades I’ve been writing in earnest, I’ve drifted toward Eco’s point of view. . .and given less energy to the hope of publishing success. It’s not sour grapes. I just like the finished work better when I think about the book itself.