There are writers who will argue passionately against keeping your readers in mind while you write. There are also writers who will argue, just as passionately, that you do yourself a grave disservice by not keeping your readers in mind.
Now, you may think that I’d advocate a middle-of-the-road position on this one. Heck, middle-of-the-road might as well be my middle name. But in this case, I’ve got a different idea.
I don’t think you should keep your readers in mind at all.
If you have to think of readers at all while you write, I say you make it singular. I say, think of one ideal reader.
Here’s what makes me say this: in one of my favorite online writers’ communities this week, we got talking about “likeable” or “relateable” characters, about the idea that you need to center your book around a protagonist whose company people will enjoy. Someone they’ll root for. Someone who does things they admire, or at least understand. We tussled back and forth a bit, as we do, but one of the things we mostly agreed on is that perfectly likeable characters are perfectly boring, and there will always be some readers who find a flawed protagonist unsympathetic, but just as many readers who think that protagonist’s flaws are the most interesting thing about him or her.
And then, also this week, something else happened.
For the first time, a reader of The Kitchen Daughter gave the book a one-star rating online because of bad language. Now, I don’t dispute this person’s right to dislike the book, or to say so — an opinion is an opinion, and we’ve all got them! But it reminded me, no matter what I wrote, no matter how hard I worked to make my characters likeable, my plot interesting, my description rich, and my dialogue compelling, that what I like is not what every reader likes, and none of us can write a book that appeals to absolutely everyone.
And I am okay with that.
Because I think that just as the reader’s decision to put down a book that uses profanity is highly personal, my decision about whether or not to use profanity in the first place is personal too. There are writers who don’t, because it works for them and their characters, and that doesn’t make their work even a shred less compelling. And I have to admit, I was warned during the writing process that any use of profanity whatsoever (which in The Kitchen Daughter is largely confined to a single scene, coming from the mouth of a single character) would turn off some readers who could never be won back afterward.
I thought again of this “relateability” issue, of the idea that we need to write a character we know will be engaging enough to readers that they’ll want to keep reading. And it’s kind of an impossible goal. We’re told to keep our readers in mind, to make sure that we’re giving them what they want, and it’s great advice, but it’s also the kind of thing that can make our writing bland, empty, and dissatisfying. Because if you try to write something that couldn’t possibly offend, couldn’t possibly remind a single person of a single thing they dislike, couldn’t possibly turn off anyone anywhere at any time — how could what remains be strong enough to appeal to anyone? To make someone, somewhere, feel something?
So I say, pick an ideal reader and check in periodically while you write to ask yourself if you’re writing a book That Reader could love. (Note: do not pick yourself. You already know you can write a book you’d want to read; you won’t learn anything from that.) In my case, That Reader is basically, though not literally, my mother. I know what that reader wants, what frustrates her, what she finds rewarding or infuriating or satisfying. I know what she doesn’t care about and what she does. And in the end, I care about not letting her down.
Don’t write your book for everyone. Write it for someone.
(Photo by Cristiano Betta)