Defining the Target Audience for Your Fiction

So you’re writing a novel and your critique buddies want to know who your “target audience” is. What do you tell them?

Nee posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hello Randy,

I am a newbie at the writing. A new “writer” friend insists I must know my audience and for whom I am writing BEFORE I start my story – so I will know what those readers will be expecting/anticipating in my story.

HOW can I know this concept? Right now, I’m writing a fictional piece because I’m having fun telling a simple Baby-Boomer character story. I ain’t got no clue who all’s my “audience.”

Can you shed me some light on this particular?

Randy sez: Yes, it’ important to know the target audience for that novel you’re writing.

No, that doesn’t mean you need to have detailed demographic information about your target audience.

John Locke wrote a book on marketing that had some nice thoughts on defining your target audience. What I took away from his book is that the author only needs to know what emotional needs the book is going to fill.

Locke’s fiction features a psychopathic assassin named Donovan Creed. Donovan works for the government but takes private contracts on the side. If you took Donovan Creed at all seriously, you’d hate the guy. But John Locke’s readers don’t take Donovan Creed seriously. Donovan Creed is a fantasy.

Locke says that his male readers would like to BE Donovan Creed.

Whereas his female readers would like to DATE Donovan Creed (although they recognize that he wouldn’t make good marriage material).

Now it should be obvious that almost nobody would really like to be Donovan Creed and almost nobody would really want to date him. Fantasies don’t have to make sense.

John Locke knows the fantasies that Donovan Creed drives in the minds of his readers.

So when you sit down to define your target audience, you need to know what emotional buttons you’re planning to push in your readers. That should start with the emotional buttons that your fiction pushes in you.

My own fiction is driven by the fact that I’d like to be Sherlock Holmes. And Albert Einstein. And Indiana Jones. All at the same time.

No, that isn’t rational. I know perfectly well that I can’t literally be any of those guys. Much less all of them at the same time.

But each of those names pushes certain emotional hot buttons in me. Those emotive buttons drive my fiction. I assume that those are also hot buttons for people who like my books. So in that sense, my target audience is composed of people who want to be Sherlock, be Einstein, and be Indy, all at the same time.

There’s more to defining your target audience, of course. Part of the game is to define your category. And to know the rules and standard operating procedures for that category.

That’s most true in the most sharply defined categories, such as romance, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction. Each of these has a large number of subcategories. If you write in any of these subcategories, then you really need to read a lot in that subcategory so you know what’s been done and what your reader’s expecting.

The good news here is that you don’t have to do a poll to find out the age, gender, economic status, and favorite ice cream of your target audience. Most writers have fans all across the spectrum. But those fans are fans because they’re responding to the emotional hot buttons that the author is pushing.

One last comment: When I talk about hot buttons, I’m of course not implying that you should be calculating or mechanical about your target audience. Write the sort of fiction that appeals to you. Figure out why it appeals to you. Your target audience will be the people who also find that appealing.

Recently I hired a graphic artist to create the cover for my next e-book. I love that cover. (Not going to show it here–I’ll save that for when we get closer to release of the book.)

I showed the cover to one of my friends. She said, “Wow! I love that cover! Who’s the target audience?”

I said, “The target audience is the set of people who like this cover.”

She thought I was joking, but I wasn’t. The cover hits a lot of hot buttons for me. I expect it’ll hit those same buttons for readers. And I expect they’ll like the book. And no, I really can’t say any more about it just yet.

That’s all for today. My US readers will be celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow. Happy Turkey Day!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.


  1. Kim Miller November 22, 2012 at 4:15 am #

    I wrote a YA novel a few years ago, thinking that the audience for YA was mid teens. The book has been used in at least one high school as a Yr9 English text here in Australia, that means 15 year olds. That was my target.

    However, the strongest comments I receive are from the mothers of teenage boys. A feature of the story is that the teen narrator carries the blame for the death of his mother in childbirth. It seems that this dynamic hits a hot button in mothers of teen boys that I didn’t envisage.

  2. Emily November 22, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    The self-pub novel I have most widely distributed showed me a surprising demographic: nurses. Which is odd, because I’m not a nurse, and it had nothing to do with nursing. But my nurse friends just raved about it (I mean, to the point where I was scratching my head and thinking, “come on, you must be putting me on, it wasn’t THAT good.”) And one woman I’d never met ordered 10 copies and gave them to all her friends.

    I think the protagonist, a not-very-bright young woman who ended up in a lot of trouble because she was always thinking of the needs of others instead of her own, must have hit their emotional buttons. In truth, I found her a little soppy.

    I have no desire to fill my novels with more of the same. The rest of my characters run the gamut, but I like best to write the ones who are devious, edgy, and in-your-face. Will I lose my small fan base?

  3. Tracy Campbell November 23, 2012 at 5:14 am #

    Mr. Ingermanson,

    You made it easy to understand how to determine my target market. Thank you! 🙂

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