Who Is Your Reader?

Who Is Your Reader?

Writers, especially of literary fiction or fiction that is difficult to categorize, often bristle at the question of whom they are writing for. It sounds like a marketing question, a question of making the highest number of readers happy at the expense of their vision, their art. I understand the knee-jerk reaction to say that your book is written for anyone who wants to read it, or no one in particular. I also understand the temptation to say that your book is written just for you.

I understand all of this, but I also believe there’s a difference between a novel and a journal. If you are writing a book that you one day plan to make available to other people to read, you have to think about your reader at some point along this way. You need to do this, though, not because it’s necessary to sell your book, but because it’s necessary to properly develop your characters and your plot. “Who is your reader?” isn’t a marketing question at all (or at least it isn’t entirely a marketing question). It’s a question of craft.

Understanding who you are writing for does not mean that you have to follow specific “rules” for your book, or write only what your reader might already be comfortable with. If you are interested in an unconventional narrator, or structure, or a story that makes readers uncomfortable, or breaks the rules of a genre, you should pursue that vision. Understanding who your reader is will help you to write more effectively, because it will force you to see your book through someone else’s eyes. How would readers who aren’t inside your head interpret your character? What kind of clues do they need to understand the tensions you want to build, and the stakes for your character? What information can be withheld from them? These questions are fundamental to effective storytelling. Answering them isn’t easy, but it’s nearly impossible if the only person you are writing for is yourself.

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