Who Are You Writing For?

It’s an often-debated question:  should you write for the market, or write for yourself?

In other words, should you write an Amish romance because they’re hot right now?

Or should you write that first contact story where the alien visitor has to prove he didn’t murder the head of the United Nations as a prelude to invasion while also wooing the Earthling of his dreams?

It’s tempting to try to write to the market. From the unpublished perspective, it seems like it would be easier to write a bestseller if you’re writing in a category that’s already selling well.

But not only is it harder to write something you don’t care about, it’s also inevitably too late–by the time a trend has crested and it’s clear that vampires or medical romances or zombie epidemics are the big thing, you’re a few months to a year behind the trend. By the time your Harry Potter-ish story is ready to submit to an agent or editor, readers are looking for the next big thing.  Not to mention the fact that you’ll be submitting to an agent or editor who’s already been inundated with copycat stories for months.

Writing to the market is a little easier if you’re self-publishing and you write fast.  If you can write a novella that rides the coattails of someone else’s success and get it out there just after the trend has crested, you have a chance of getting in front of readers who are looking for the next Twilight or the next Hunger Games. Then they’ll be primed for more work for you in that subgenre.

But that’s a big risk. And it supposes that you can produce high-quality fiction on a deadline that’s enough like the trendsetter you’re following to satisfy fans without feeling derivative.  Unless you’re very good, you can spend your whole career chasing the market without ever catching a spot on the bestseller list.

Writing for yourself is a big risk too.  It’s easy to end up making the story so specific to your own personal interests that it’s difficult for others to get into the story. Who else wants to read a story about a chocolate-chomping, bellydancing, needle-pointing detective who tracks down abducted children while falling in love with the CEO of an ecofriendly publishing company?

Um. I think the answer to that one is obvious.

A lot of experienced writers recommend that you write for a particular person–someone you know who represents your target readers.  If you don’t know someone personally who would be your target reader, imagine someone who fits the bill based on what you know about your intended audience.

That’s better. It makes it easier to identify who you’re trying to make happy.

But even writing for your target reader, you run the risk of toning yourself down to meet that person’s expectations–which can limit you from breaking new ground and creating a story that blows readers’ minds.

In other words, you may find yourself writing what that person is going to expect to read rather than being true to your creative vision and creating something really new and different.

So are you screwed?  Do you have to choose between writing stories that very few people want to read or writing stories that everyone wanted to read last year?

No. Not if you write to human nature.

What great authors do is they create strange new worlds for readers to explore–but they make those worlds accessible to the reader by writing to human nature.

Before Harry Potter, “kids at wizard school” was a small subgenre read by a few hardcore fantasy fans. J.K. Rowling not only wrote a fantastic story in this subgenre, she made Harry’s world so accessible that millions of readers–many of whom were NOT fantasy fans–found their way into that world.

How did she do it?

She made the main characters accessible by:

  • Using techniques that caused readers to have both sympathy and empathy for them
  • Giving them backstories and personality traits that explained their actions in the present
  • Showing their emotional reactions to events clearly, so that the reader knew how to interpret those events
  • Depicting familiar relationships and emotional dynamics embedded in her fantasy world, making even the mysterious characters comprehensible to the reader at an emotional level

She made the world accessible by:

  • Piquing the reader’s curiosity, then giving the characters a reason to explore what the reader was curious about
  • Showing the reader how things worked in this world instead of telling us
  • Including familiar elements along with the strange and magical elements, so that those familiar elements served as a gateway to the unfamiliar
  • Feeding one new thing to the reader at a time, so that the reader didn’t get overwhelmed with strangeness

In other words, she skillfully utilized techniques for writing immersive fiction to make it possible for people who’d never read a fantasy book in their lives to understand Harry Potter’s world.

Rowling understood that you can’t just plunk readers down into a completely foreign environment and expect them to connect to this new world. She gave her readers a myriad of familiar elements that helped explain the unfamiliar, and she gave the reader likable, interesting, sympathetic characters–characters that the reader was willing to follow deep into the world.

She understood that we are intrigued by the new, the strange, the mysterious–but that we also need a starting point for exploring it. Harry Potter’s world has plenty of windows for us to peek in…and doors to walk through.

You can do this with your own fiction.

Don’t ask yourself, “What does the market want me to write?”

Don’t ask yourself, “What does my target reader want me to write?”

Write what you really want to write, and ask yourself, “How can I make this accessible to my target reader?”

Using Symbolism to Flesh Out Your Characters

You had a dream about a man on a motorcycle, and you can’t stop thinking about him. You’re convinced that he’d make a great hero, if you could just find the right story for him.

But you can’t remember the rest of the dream. You don’t know anything about him except that he rides a motorcycle.

How can you get a handle on your mystery man? Start by asking:

“What do motorcycles symbolize?”

  • Motorcycles are fast. Maybe this man loves zooming along on his hog because it gives him a sense of movement that’s lacking from his otherwise stagnant life. If he feels like he’s in last place in his career or his marriage, going for a ride on his motorcycle might be how he copes—with the landscape rushing by, he can pretend for a few moments that at least he’s winning this race.
  • Motorcycles are agile. A man who prefers a motorcycle to a car might have an agile mind—he might be the kind of person who thinks on his feet and isn’t fazed no matter what you throw at him.
  • Motorcycles are small enough to pass through spaces where even the most compact car won’t fit. If this is what your rider loves about his bike, it’s possible that he’s someone who doesn’t like following the rules and is constantly looking for loopholes that will allow him to get what he wants. Or maybe he’s impatient, and he knows that as long as he’s on his motorcycle, he’ll never again be stuck in a traffic jam—wasting time is agonizing to him.
  • Motorcycles can handle terrain that a standard car can’t. What if your mystery man was injured during a tour of duty, and now he can only limp along slowly with a cane? But when he’s riding, he’s no longer limited by his injuries, and he can go anywhere, including the wilderness areas where he used to hike. The motorcycle could be a symbol of freedom for him.
  • Riding a motorcycle is riskier than driving a car, not because motorcycles are inherently unsafe, but because other drivers on the road are less likely to notice a motorcycle or to give the cyclist enough space. So the fact that this man is riding one demonstrates that he’s a risk-taker to some degree. He might be the kind of person who takes calculated risks or he might be a reckless adrenaline junkie.
  • Motorcycles aren’t a mainstream form of transportation. Why has he chosen an unconventional ride—is he rebelling against mainstream society, or is he just a free spirit who marches to a different drum?

You can probably think of other things that motorcycles symbolize to you, and one of them will give you a toehold into this character’s personality. He’s a creation of your subconscious, and he’s riding a motorcycle because your subconscious is trying to tell you something important about him.

Once you’ve worked through your personal symbolism around motorcycles, ask yourself a second question:

“What is this character’s relationship to his motorcycle?”

In other words, what could the motorcycle symbolize to him? How is the bike an extension of this man’s personality?

  • Does he see himself as a knight in shining armor, and the motorcycle as his modern day steed?
  • Is he a geek who’s trying to change his image by riding a hog with a flames-and-skulls paint job?
  • Is he trying to impress the girl in chemistry class who doesn’t even know he exists?
  • Is he a wanna-be cowboy with a fear of horses?

These two questions have probably given you a feel for the character’s personality. Now it’s time to get more specific.

“How does this character use his bike?”

In other words, what meaningful role does it play in his life?

  • Is this man a recreational rider, one of those people who get together in groups and take caravan-style road trips together during their vacations? That suggests he’s got a stable job and a reasonable source of income. He probably also has a car for daily use. It also hints that he feels the need to regularly escape from his everyday life or that he’s periodically struck with wanderlust.
  • Or maybe he’s a member of a motorcycle gang. He still might ride around in a group, but for completely different reasons. And he’ll have a completely different lifestyle than our recreational rider. His bike may be the thing that keeps him ahead of the law, or a symbol of his status in the gang, or an expression of his personal bad-assery.
  • Could he be an amateur racer, moving from one town to the next and scraping by on the money he wins in illegal or barely-legal contests? Maybe he’s always dreamed of being a Nascar driver, but he’s got a disability that disqualifies him. Or maybe the death of his high-school sweetheart in a drunk driving accident has so scarred him that he can’t stand to be in one place for more than a few days.
  • Has he deliberately chosen the motorcycle as his sole source of transportation? He’s probably a lone wolf without much of a social life or a family. You can’t drive a group of friends to the movies on a motorcycle, or strap on an infant car seat.
  • Is the motorcycle his only transportation option? Maybe he’s trying to bootstrap himself out of poverty, and the motorcycle is a step up from the bicycle that he used to ride for his courier job.

How did he get the motorcycle?

How the motorcycle entered his life will also hint at what it means to him.

  • Did he clear out his savings or work two jobs so he could afford it?
  • Did he buy it as a present for himself when the company he started in his garage went public?
  • Did he inherit it from his father, who died when he was a baby?
  • Did he build it from junkyard parts one summer in high school, as a way to keep busy after that cheerleader broke his heart?
  • Did he steal it from his abusive step-father when he left home at 16?
  • Is it an antique that he’s lovingly restored? Is the bike a link to his beloved late grandfather, who once owned a bike just like this before he shipped out to fight in World War II?

Can the symbolism be twisted in an interesting way?

  • A lot of bikers enjoy (or are at least comfortable with) the riskiness of riding a hog. What if your character is the opposite? He’s a mousy accountant who’s terrified of riding his motorcycle, but his wife has just left him for a Neanderthal, and he’s convinced he can win her back by changing his image with a shiny new Harley.
  • Your mystery man was raised as a Hell’s Angel by his father, but left the gang as a teen because he couldn’t stand the violence. Now he’s grudgingly rejoined in order to solve the mystery of his brother’s death. Every time he gets back on his motorcycle, he’s reminded of the terrible person he used to be.
  • He’d rather be driving a sports car, but your character has been pressured by his coworkers to buy a motorcycle and go riding with them after hours—and he does, because he really wants to fit in. In this case, the motorcycle is no longer a symbol of rebellion, but a symbol of his need to conform.

You can also come at the symbolism of your character’s possessions from the other direction, of course—if you already know that your character is a loner or a non-conformist or a sociopath, you can give him a motorcycle and a related backstory that emphasizes the traits you want to communicate to the reader.

Can you think of a symbolic object that your main character might possess, or want to possess?