I subscribe to the Writer’s Digest free emails (I don’t actually pay for stuff – how much money do you think I have?). Sometimes, I read it and think “What, really, give your heroes some believable faults and your villains some good points so they’ll seem a bit more human? I never would have thought of that…”
But yesterday, there was an email that really made me think, and I told my husband about it, and made him think too. It was this one – about whether you should write for yourself, or for the reader. To some extent, it’s a no-brainer: you should always write for the person who is going to be reading it. If that’s only going to be you, then write for yourself. If, someday, you hope someone else will read your stuff, then you’d better factor them in too.
But what really made me think was how specific the author of that post got – his strategy was to make a sort of ‘ideal reader’ character in his mind, and write the book for her. And I think that’s a really good idea, because it forces you to focus.
Commenters on the article objected, and suggested that if that’s what you were going to do, then why not just write for yourself – or for someone you knew? It comes down to the same thing in the end – you’re writing for one person, who standards for the population of readers you hope to attract.
But, thinking about it, it’s not the same thing at all. It’s all about how specific you are. If you write for yourself, then you’re being very specific indeed – there’s no-one who knows more about what you like than you do. And you know all your little quirks and idiosyncrasies (even if you don’t recognise them). So by writing for yourself, you’re effectively writing for the only person in the world who fits that description. If you write for someone you know, you still know quite a bit about them, and real people have all sorts of little quirks, so you’re still narrowing your focus.
But if you make up a character, you can make him or her into a sort of everyman. Lawyers know about this: law is full of these people – the ‘Reasonable Man’, the ‘Moron in a Hurry’, the ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’, ‘Equity’s Darling’. They are cardboard cutout sort of people who each stand in for a population. We know some of their characteristics, but they don’t have individual quirks because their function is not to be individuals. Your made up character isn’t a real person: he or she is the shadowy Reasonable Reader, with just enough of a personality to perform one single function: that of keeping your book focused and on track.
So my project for this week is to work out who, and what, my Reasonable Reader is. And thank goodness that article was published now rather than in six months’ time. Lucky, lucky, lucky…