I’m taking a brief break this week from the Literature You Should Know posts to share some reflections on a topic that came up as I prepared to teach a poetry-writing class. Most of us found this blog through Taliesin Nexus and want to talk about culture because we’re content creators of a conservatarian bent. But whether you’re a poet, novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker, TV producer, songwriter, or blogger, I want to ask you one simple question:
Who’s your audience?
No matter what we write, we write for an audience, even if it’s only an audience of one. It doesn’t matter whether you immediately close the document without saving or burn the paper you’ve just written on—you wouldn’t put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard unless you wanted to say something to someone else. And audience awareness becomes all the more critical when you publish, regardless of medium.
Granted, the question need not arise at the outset. Sometimes you have to get the idea written before you figure out who you’re writing it to. And sometimes the audience you have in mind when you start writing and the audience who’ll appreciate what you have at the end of your first draft are vastly different, in which case you have to decide whether to keep going, revise heavily, or start over from scratch. Sooner or later, though, you’re going to need to figure out who your audience is, if only to make sure the marketing campaign takes the right path.
For example, when it came time to hash out a cover design for my novella Look Behind You, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted because the story mixes so many genres at once. Is it fantasy? Alt-history? World War II? Western? Trying to cram them all in would make for a terrible mess, but what should appear and what shouldn’t? I knew what the local market would find most interesting, but my cover artist knew that a broader market would be most interested in another aspect entirely! Fortunately, my rambling about where I plan to take the rest of the series helped her prompt me to look for other covers I liked in the historical fantasy field, and that got us on the same page at last.
Audience awareness doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be afraid to say something. It does mean you have to figure out the best way to say it and be willing to defend your choices if and when you receive any backlash. I know, for example, that some people in my hometown will pick up Look Behind You simply because I wrote it and be Shocked! at the fantasy elements (especially a Christian writing about Nazi necromancers!!!), generally because they’re unaware of the history I’ve incorporated. So I try to give fair warning when I talk to people, and I’ve written a blog post explaining that no, I’ve not gone off the deep end… and I’m leaving it at that. Caveat lector. Conversely, I’m sure there are people who’ll read the book for the Nazi necromancers and find other elements too Christian! And, well, caveat lector again… I went to Baylor, after all.
There are limits, though, to which caveat lector applies. One is the point at which it runs up against “show, don’t tell.” A long-winded digression on why people can’t just do the right thing isn’t going to be nearly as effective as Merry challenging the Ents to take action against Saruman in movie-verse The Two Towers or a group of cowboys conversing over a meal and a beer, expressing their dismay over the townspeople’s unwillingness to risk their own lives to help a neighbor. (I used the latter scene in Loyal Valley: Bystanders, if you want to see how it works.) Another limit is the point at which the message becomes more important than the story. A conservative/libertarian message isn’t any more attractive in this regard than a liberal one. If you’re writing only to people who already agree with you, it might not matter so much. If you’re trying to reach a liberal audience, though, it’s more important that the story be good—if you want to make a point about the ticking time bomb dilemma, for instance, write something like 24. Get the liberals sucked into an engaging adventure and then watch them squirm as they grapple with its implications.
You can’t reason people out of a position they weren’t reasoned into. But you can make them question their assumptions with a well-told story. And it’s easiest to craft the right story in the right way if you know your audience.