To finish the series, “How to Follow Writing Advice that Makes No Sense,” consider another rule of thumb that successful authors so often seem to break: ‘Know your Target Audience.’
Trends in fiction are rarely predictable. Innovation devolves into cliché in about the time that it takes most busy people to get around to reading last year’s bestsellers, and this can frustrate that habit we formed as kids to stay ‘on trend.’ This is because it is often those without full-time careers—most notably, young readers—who channel the rivers of popularity when it comes to reading. For that reason, when it comes to understanding how to ‘Know your Target Audience,’ it may be best to focus on the target audience that changes the most often: young readers.
Anyone who has worked with children or teenagers knows how quickly they feel pressure to change their tastes. When something ‘sick’ becomes something ‘sweet,’ and then something else is sick because it’s sweet, the challenge of knowing this audience becomes similar to memorizing geographical formations down the side of the nearest active volcano. Ironically, successful authors who seem to break this rule—who publish runaway hits that seem to set new trends—may actually be the same authors who follow it the most closely. These may be the geniuses who have figured out that, for this audience, every trend is doomed at any moment to grow ill (which is entirely different from being ‘sick.’) These creators know exactly the ways to build on trends by painting whole new targets for their audience.
The Super Stalwart
By 1938, boys had had their fill of ordinary, breakable swashbucklers like Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Of course, strictly interpreted, the advice to ‘Know Your Target Audience’ would have had creators scrambling to clone these characters, disguising the same formula behind a new name or a different costume. It took Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster to truly follow this advice, by creating a Superman with the same sense of justice and adventure, but with powers and abilities far beyond those of the mortals spending their dimes on these periodicals. Siegel and Schuster recognized the type of story that was working for this audience, but knew they had to change the trend of the protagonist.
The Wall-Eyed Wizard
The years leading up to 1997 were dominated for young readers by the fiction of Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine and a Point Horror entry about once every fifteen seconds. In other words, young literature featured kids being scared, and scared by something other than just a spider in the tub or their Dad’s nose hair. To know her target audience, the revered J.K. Rowling was careful to retain the supernatural mystery that seemed to have endured for so long, but to place that supernatural power into the hands and wands of her goggle-eyed protagonists. Rather than leaving matters to surprisingly lucky Scooby-Crews, she gave her heroes—since then, our heroes—the ability to develop powers that rival the nastiest of bwa-ha-haaas.
The Pining Predator
When 2005 came around, then, young readers showed no sign of losing interest in the spooky, but a certain sector of them… dare I say, the female sector… had begun piling next to them more realistic explorations of their own emotions. Along came Synthesis-Stephanie Meyer, who saw the trends that were popular in fiction, but knew that something about them would have to change: and, boy, did she ever change something. Perhaps inspired by a character or two from the Anne Rice novels, Meyer’s vampires flossed the human blood from their fangs, varnished up their skin, and decided that their most attractive mate must be the inconsolably forlorn teenage girl who was a fifth of their age. Thus emerged the era of the Paranormal Romance (and the only movie I’ve ever left early after paying admission.)
If youth sets trends, then, it’s up to writers to decide what to do with that information. While knowing this target audience is certainly essential, writing what is popular to them now is almost certainly a mistake. Suzanne Collins knew this, and so did Veronica Roth… but guessing which element of a trend to change is still, after all, a bit of a guessing game. What new, speculative element will catch young readers’ attention while still giving them enough of what they already love?
I guess I’m still hoping it might be a young girl’s Labels.