Fiction and Knowing Your Audience

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The first rule of any type of communication:

Know your audience.

I’ve written about the importance of understanding exactly who you address in a post about giving presentations and another entry on sales interactions.

You can’t make an effective argument or impart a thorough understanding of your point or thesis without profiling people on the receiving end. Without a good grasp of audiences, you don’t know where to begin—how much do they know and understand already?—and you don’t know what line of argument or what tone would best elicit your desired reaction.

Without knowing your audience, you may as well speak into the void.

Herein the challenge: With fiction, you don’t know your audience. In fact, you really can’t know your audience. This makes writing fiction all the more difficult. (And I’ve already stated that I find fiction harder to write than nonfiction for other reasons.)

If you write genre fiction, you know that your typical audience reads novels in your category. You may even have a subcategory within your genre that attracts an even more specific type of reader.

And if your novel has a female protagonist, you can assume that women will read it more than men.

Yet saying females or readers who enjoy certain genres make up your likely readership doesn’t narrow the audience down much. After all, many different types of women exist. (Thankfully.) And many different types of people like different types of books. (Thankfully.)

Literary-fiction readership varies widely among the novel-consuming public (which narrows every day, alas). I’ve read books by people very different from me—not only for a masterly writer and compelling tale, but because I want to understand worlds other than my own.

These authors didn’t write these tales for me. Or to me. Or with me in mind.

Perhaps my fiction would improve if I envisioned a specific audience. Without question, certain people like one type of tale more than others. (Aside: An editor at a literary magazine once assumed me male—and assumed I’d bring a masculine readership—for writing a war story.)

Yet I hope my stories appeal to a broad swath of folks. As with the fiction I love to devour, I’d like to find readers who feel curiosity about my topic and enjoy my writing and my tale.

What do you think? Should novelists write for specific audiences?