“No one likes my work.”
“I can’t secure an agent.”
“I spent so long perfecting my plot, my characters, my world, but it doesn’t seem to flow together. What’s wrong with my story?!”
These are all frustrations writers face, and all things I’ve faced. They may seem unrelated, aside from the aspect of one’s work not being good enough, but there may be a deeper connection.
I can’t tell you how many books I’ve picked up, only to put down, simply because I didn’t connect with the story/characters. And that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad story (although it could be) – it might just mean I’m not the target audience.
First, what the heck do I mean by target audience?
It’s not the people you’re trying to shoot with your bow, although you certainly are trying to hit them as soon as they scan the first page of your book. Really, all I mean by target audience is exactly how it sounds: The audience (readers, people, demographic, etc.) you want to reach – or target – with your book.
Okay, now that we defined what a target audience is, let’s look at an example. I’m going to use my novel, Rise of the Forgotten. (If you haven’t read it, what are you even doing here?? Go read it!)
When I started writing it at fourteen and finished a bit over a year later, I basically wrote what I wanted to read: A medieval-style adventure with swords, horses, knights, and princesses. I re-wrote it a couple years ago, upping the reading level a tad and improving character depth/plot twists/general writing. But the target audience remains the same:
-Medieval enthusiasts, or at least those interested in the time period
You may be thinking, wow, that’s pretty specific – limiting, even … and you’d be right! It is limiting. And believe it or not, I could narrow it down even further from there (homeschoolers, animal-lovers, etc.), but that’s as far as I need to for the sake of this blog.
That said, of all these demographics don’t have to apply.
I don’t only want female readers – there are two main guy characters, for goodness’ sakes! – I don’t only want young adult readers, I don’t only want Christian/religious readers, and I don’t only want medieval enthusiasts.
However, I need a marketing strategy. I need a pitch, a spiel, if you will, when someone asks who I wrote the book for. When Amazon asks me to label the genre/age, I have to answer.
And … I need to know how to write my book.
Let’s go back to the common frustrations writers face that I listed at the beginning. No one liking their work. Not being able to secure an agent. The carefully crafted plot, characters, and world not flowing. I’m here to tell you that all of this can boil down to the target audience.
I looked at four different aspects of my target audience in Rise of the Forgotten:
All of these are hugely important when it comes to writing, promoting and selling your book. Why?
Age: This helps you determine the age of your characters. Now, they don’t have to be the same age as your target audience, but they should be somewhat close. For younger audiences (youths, teens, and young adults) the characters are often slightly older. We all wanted to be ‘just a bit older’ when we were young, right? Similarly, for adults, they want the characters to be just a bit younger than they are – a bit more unpredictable, a bit more adventurous, a bit of what the reader used to be or wanted to be when they were the characters’ ages.
Gender: This is less important for women readers. Women are far more likely to read a book with a main male character(s) than a man is to read a book with a main woman character(s). Women will also read book genres intended for men, but rarely the reverse. But, it still is important. Are you wanting primarily men readers? Women? Both? Then you’ll need to craft your characters and plot accordingly. For men, you’ll want at least one of your MCs (if not the MC) to be male, as well as a decent amount of the side characters. If you want women to read it, too, you’ll at least want a fairly main woman character, and one or two side ones. Sadly, there are many good books I’ve read that only have one token female character (yes, usually books written by men), and you can tell she’s just in there as a love interest. For primarily women readers, you can do about fifty-fifty, with maybe a couple more women than men.
Also, you’ll want to pace your plot accordingly. If you want male readers, you need to have a fairly fast plot with a decent amount of action. Women will also read action (heck, I love a good adventure!) but you’ll need to add some more character depth, whether that’s creating a love story, a search for identity, etc. Ideally, men’s book should have this, too, but you have to balance out the emotional side with an engaging plot. Unfortunately, targeting readers based on their gender all boils down to playing off stereotypes. However, there are a lot of ways to avoid cliche characters, even while doing a bit of stereotyping. Read my series Character Creations to learn how to make convincing characters that will hook your audience, male or female!
Theme/Message: First off, no matter what, no one wants to have an agenda pushed down their throat. Even if your reader agrees with you, you have to make the story message fit with your story (whether that’s political, religious, or simply relational). Secondly, it should fit with your audience (duh). A ten-year-old isn’t going to want to read extensively about a parent grieving the loss of their child, or an in-depth political system and its takedown. Similarly, an adult doesn’t necessarily connect with a kid who is being bullied at school and is swept on an adventure with a quest for self-identity and making friends.
World-building: This is perhaps the most important, especially for finnicky/niche readers. The world, its laws, and what you focus on (e.g. knights defeating a dragon vs. farmers saving their potato business) can determine whether or not a reader likes your story. But you know what the best part about the world is? There’s no right answer! As long as you’re consistent, sticking with a world that flows with its genre, you can take your pick. Sure, not everyone will like it. It’s like pumpkin spice – either you like it or you don’t. When you market your product, simply appeal to people who like pumpkin spice. Haters gonna hate, and readers might not all like your work. But the good news is they don’t have to – you only have to appeal to those who like your genre, not a self-help enthusiast who decided to pick up your sci-fi adventure.
Since that’s settled, you can now realize not everyone is going to like your work because you didn’t write it for them. Not every agent will want to represent you because they have certain genres they prefer (and they list them on their profile! Take advantage of it!). If your world just isn’t seeming to flow, make sure all the aspects we discussed (age, gender, theme, and world) all fit with the audience you’re targeting. Once you’ve ironed out any inconsistencies, you’ll be able to clearly appeal to the readers you designed your world for, and they’ll probably enjoy it a whole lot more than your great aunt Sara who only likes to read cooking books. And that’s okay!!
Now, I want to reiterate: That doesn’t mean you won’t get readers who are outside the scope of your target audience! I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had buy my book for their kid or grandkid and ended up reading it themselves and really enjoying it. That’s the beauty of well-written characters and a good plot – anyone can appreciate it! If you’re truly a great author (which I don’t claim to be – yet) you’ll have people read your books not because its ‘their genre,’ but because they enjoy your writing, characters, and stories so much that a lot of smaller details are no longer important.
That’s how we should all strive to write – aiming for a certain audience but writing good enough that anyone should enjoy it. I know that’s my goal.
-J. H. Gates