Intending Your Audience

Or, who are you really creating for?

This is a trickier question than it seems. On the surface, it should be fairly obvious. If you write a picture book for children, then your story should contain a child-appropriate narrative, and child-appropriate content, of an appropriate complexity for your target age group. If you write thrillers, you know that there are some limits and boundaries on the thriller genre that your audience will be expecting. Whether you do or do not cross those is between you and your muse, but you need to be aware that they’re there. If you write a book for middle-aged parents of teenage children, then you’ve got your target demographic all sorted out.

But sometimes, that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. A few examples come to mind.

The first is when a demographic that wasn’t the target demographic picks up and runs with something. Minecraft was, reportedly, supposed to be survival horror, but only a very select few people choose to play it from that perspective. More dramatically, the Brony fandom: a cadre of boys and men in their late teens and older who got really, really into My Little Pony, a show targeted at primary-school-age girls, with varying degrees of social acceptance. Is this a bad thing? No. Did some people make it weird? Yes, but then, any fandom has at least one group of fans who make it weird. Of course, every fan subgroup always suspects another subgroup of being “that group”. It’s a humanity thing. This does not inherently make a demographic latching onto a work not intended for them a bad thing.

The second is when a show’s original demographic for whatever reason retains its sense of ownership of a work after they have moved out of its primary demographic. This usually happens with age – for example, comic book readers who read comics from childhood. The stereotype here is a forty-year-old complaining that comic books “are too childish”, ignoring the fact that they have always been childish and they have always been ‘for children’.

Most times, for the artist, these things are curiosities. The demographic who latch on to something not aimed at them is often doing so because the work has something they haven’t found in works aimed at them, so when they find it elsewhere, they stick around. For example, a YA book might have the simple plot, lighter themes or tone and vivid characters that a working adult is looking for in order to wind down after a long week at work. The adult wouldn’t necessarily get that in a book aimed at adults, which would likely focus on muddier moral quandaries and more subdued characters, so the adult goes elsewhere.

The problem for the artist only occurs when the secondary demographic gets vocal – when they start demanding changes to the source material to suit their needs.

Often, especially in the case of that stereotypical comic book fan, the argument goes something like this: “I’m a loyal fan – I have more money than a child, and I buy more of their products. It’s in their interests to cater to me and my preferences, rather than continue to sell to children.” Or some other variant of “my money supports this franchise, so that means that I am the real target of this fiction”.

From one standpoint, no. Just because you pay money for a work doesn’t give you a say in what happens in that work. An author isn’t required to change their work because you don’t like it, even if most of the fanbase agrees with you. You aren’t buying shares in a book or a show or a game, you’re buying access to the final product. Note that it is of course your rights to withdraw financial support from a content creator you feel is no longer producing content you would like to consume.

There’s a caveat there: Artists like to make money off their work. Or, on a less prosaic level, they like to feel that their work is liked and appreciated. People no longer willing to spend money to access that work is a sign that they don’t like it and don’t feel they will like future instalments enough to allot time to them, either. If it no longer becomes financially feasible for an artist to work on a particular project, it’s a perfectly sound business decision to abandon that project and work on something that people will pay money for. Whether it’s a sound artistic decision is not the point of contention here, and it’s impossible to make blanket statements one way or the other. This could mean anything from an artist getting better equipment to provide a more pleasing visual and audio experience and avoid technical glitches, to adding more varied female/racial representation in future works, or scrapping a long-term project entirely and beginning a new one with a different focus or genre.

However, sometimes taking that work in the new direction makes it completely wrong for the original audience. I’m sure if My Little Pony actually implemented half the requests the Bronies had for the story (even if the sexual/relationship-based requests were discarded), it would no longer be suitable for the intended demographic.

But would that be a good or a bad thing for the Bronies?

Let’s go back to the example of the adult reading the YA novel. If that reader and a group of adults all liked that YA novel, but thought the moral choice in the ending was handled too simplistically, the artist might decide that they’re the group contributing the most money to the book and choose to write something closer to adult fiction next time, to cater to their wants. These are adult readers, after all, who might find a simplistic moral quandary a little jarring, and breaking the suspension of disbelief.

But if you give that book a muddier moral quandary, and more complex character development, those adult authors – who, remember, were reading this book because they wanted a simple story with vivid characters – suddenly find themselves reading a dense book that’s too heavy for them to read to relax anymore. They put the book down, maybe they don’t pick up another. And the artist loses the demographic anyway.

Similarly, would a group like the Bronies lose a core part of their engagement with and enjoyment of My Little Pony if the developers caved to their requests and introduced darker and more complex plots to the children’s series? Might not part of the appeal be that the stories are lighthearted and don’t leave the reader feeling emotionally wrung out after a particularly harrowing episode?

I feel this is the problem with a lot of characters who get Flanderized – the artist had a character who had a particular predominant trait, which the audience liked so much it became their only trait, or it became exaggerated over time. The Pirates of the Caribbean audience wanted more Jack Sparrow. Look where that got us. I hate to say “audiences don’t know what they want” because this isn’t an excuse to dismiss your audience as ignorant and saying they don’t understand your True Artistic Direction, but it’s also true that if audiences latch onto a specific scene or joke or character, you’ll hear very little else from them, and it’s easy to assume it was the only part they liked, or the gap between how much they liked that part and how much they liked everything else is much larger than it really is.

But back to the original point – who do you write for: The intended audience or the audience who pays for it?

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