Friday, May 18, 2012

Know Your Readers--Even If You Have To Make Them Up

by Scott Rhoades

Ask a writer about the intended audience for her book and she'll likely say, "4th to 8th grade kids," or maybe she'll get more specific and say, "Girls around 9 to 11." That helps, and it's probably enough, but what if you narrowed it down more?

What if you used the technique that is often used by product designers (at least in the software industry, which I know, and likely in other industries I don't know so well)? In the software world, designers create personas, specific make-believe people who are based on real data collected about customers. For example, "We're aiming this product at Michael, a sales manager for a manufacturer of boating accessories who needs to track the sales and commissions of his staff of 12 international sales people. Michael is 42 years old, and likes to spend his weekends boating and camping, but often has to skip fun weekends out on the lake to process the latest sales data from his staff. He's looking for a product that will automate much of the work he now does by hand, especially the creating of reports he sends to his director every Monday morning."

Michael is not necessarily a real person. He's more likely a composite of several customers or prospective customers who have been visited by product designers. But he becomes real to the designers. They will probably even find a photo of "Michael" and post it someplace as a reminder of their target audience.

We can do the same thing. Instead of aiming at "Junior-high-aged girls," write for Becca, a thirteen-year-old girl who enjoys reading fantasy novels as a way to escape the boredom of her life. Becca is a good student when the teacher holds her interest, but even though she's fascinated by history, she thinks it's boring in classes. She thinks of herself as an outsider at school because she doesn't quite fit in with any of the usual groups. She prefers a few good friends to a large circle of people. She feels awkward in social situations, especially if there are boys or popular girls involved. Teachers are often unsure how to work with her because she doesn't often seemed engaged in her lessons, but she is actually listening very carefully while she doodles in her notepad. She likes spaghetti and other pastas with tomato-based sauce, but is more likely to grab something cold from the pantry or fridge than to heat something up. She's read the popular books like Twilight and Harry Potter, but she hasn't found anything that she really loves. Still, reading anything is better than nothing, and she loves a story she can immerse herself in. She loves the feel of books, especially older books, but says she prefers to read ebooks because she considers it an invasion of her privacy for others to see what she's reading. In reality, it's more a case of being self-conscious and afraid other will jump to conclusions about her if they see what she's reading.

Get as specific as you can, then think about Becca when you're writing. Go beyond types (in other words, do better than I did in my example) and make her real. That's the key. She has to be real to you. Internalize her. Make her as important to your story as the characters you want her to identify with.

When you're unsure how to resolve a story situation, consider what Becca would like to read. Go out on the Internet and find a picture of somebody who might be Becca and post it prominently in your writing area. Don't be surprised if Becca becomes a character in your story after all that work figuring out who she is, but be careful to remember that she is your audience.

Sure, you want your book to appeal to more than this one reader, but if you aim at a specific persona, somebody who becomes real to you, constantly considering what he or she wants to read (while never forgetting the story that you, the writer, want to tell), then chances are you'll come closer to writing a book that real people want to read.

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