Thursday, March 7, 2013

Considering the Audience

One of the many false dichotomies our society presents to us is the conflict between creating for ourselves and creating for a market. Creating for ourselves seems pure and virtuous, the only road to greatness, while catering to a market is crass and debasing. Except that creating for ourselves is self-indulgent and egotistical and creating for a market is sensible and realistic.

Either way, you should be grateful if somebody notices you, much less pays you anything.

Here's a tip: Whenever anybody offers you a choice between A and B, choose C. Or D. Anything except the forced, false choice the other person is trying to manipulate you into making.

Creating those things that we want ourselves is vital to our happiness; but if we want to share, whether for pay or not, we must consider who we are to share with. No cook who serves steak to vegans will be happy with the result - and if he knew he was making a meal for vegans, he has no one but himself to blame.

Generally speaking, we are only ready to create for an audience after we've gotten a certain amount of experience under our belts. We create, and then we look around and try to match our creation with a target audience that can be expected to enjoy it. Our first attempts to aim may be in entirely the wrong direction; I know many YA authors who had no idea they were YA authors until accumulating a critical mass of rejection letters from editors and agents working in the adult field telling them to try a YA market. Other people (and I've never encountered one of these who went on to anything I would call success) try to break into the literary world by writing for children and teens because they assume it will be easier than writing for adults. This was not so, and is not so, and God forbids that it should be so, but I'm not going off on that tangent right now. And I've even met a few insouciant people who wanted to write for "everybody," and that's not happening either. Especially since these people tended to assume that "everybody" was similar enough to themselves to make no never mind and this is me walking past another tangent.

Eventually, however, the audience has to enter the creative process, usually at either the planning or revision stages, because consciously thinking about them in most arts is too much to ask of the brain during the white heat of creation. Performing artists, of course, must be aware of and responding to the audience as part of the work, and the knack of doing this without being paralyzed by self-consciousness is an important part of their standard toolkit. Which is probably why so few performing artists write books well - without the audience right in front of them to play off, they can't judge how well they're doing. Those of us in the non-performing arts learn to look at our work as the audience would, or we don't get far.

I speak of "the audience," but as any actor can tell you, the audience is not a single entity. Even inside the confines of a theater, the individuals can be sorted into different types of audience, from the serious fans in the front row to the employees of the house snatching bits of the performance as they come and go, and then there's your co-workers backstage.

Most works have an ideal audience which is very specific. I wrote all my middle grade novels, first and foremost, for myself at the age of 10. Widespot has an ideal audience of two: myself, and my newsgroup friend Aegagropilon, whose tastes are similar to mine, though her playstyle is not. All those published works that began as stories told to the family, or to the Girl Scout troop, or to the members of the river excursion on that golden afternoon, were created first for their ideal audience. I don't know any work whose ideal audience is a viable economic market.

The target audience is more abstract, but is the important one and you can get to know it pretty well. English-speaking children between the ages of 9 and 14 who enjoy fantasy, or mystery, or have an interest in archeology, are a diverse group overall, but they have common characteristics that hold true across subcultures and over time. You can learn how to please them, and how to serve them, and how to get the response you want from them. You do not have to be one of them to understand them well enough to create for them any more than a cook has to be a vegan in order to cook without using animal products, but you do have to respect them and partake of some of their tastes. If you think 13-year-old boys have a repugnant sense of humor, do not write a joke book for 13-year-old boys.

The target audience for Widespot is the particular set of Sims2 players who make regular use of the Mod the Sims newsgroup, both for socializing with other players and as a source of custom content. Whereas I am, nowadays, fairly zen about writing for middle grade and YA audiences, I found myself having to consider the MTS audience consciously at every stage of production. I knew I could please Aegagropilon and me; I could probably please the handful of people who consistently "like" my posts and pictures about what goes on in my own game, but what about other people out there? Most people find my cartoony sims, with their exaggerated features, ugly, so should I try to build pretty sims for once?

On the other hand, what is the use of my making sims that don't bear the stamp of my personal taste? Which is shaped by a problem with facial recognition - I have a hard time recognizing real people, let alone a bunch of animations built on a finite set of facial templates. So I compromised, getting the features on each sim I made exactly how I liked them, then adjusting them one or two steps toward the median. Most of the sims I didn't build at all. I built their parents, and used the game's tool for combining genes to make offspring, rejecting offspring who I thought looked more bizarre than the market would bear. It's the same principle that guides me in deciding how much of my research to let show on the page.

Of course the MTS audience contains many, many lurkers, as well as people whose tastes vary wildly from mine, and not everyone who uses the downloads area where I hope to make Widespot available also uses the discussion fora or frequents the same ones as me, whose reception of it I couldn't predict. I couldn't tailor for those people, so I had to count them as part of the peripheral audience. The target audience for a shareable neighborhood, moreover, couldn't be based too much on me, because I am unlikely ever to download a neighborhood. I have more ideas than I know what to do with already. I don't need anybody else's.

The biggest demand for new inhabited neighborhoods is from two kinds of people. Many wanted to jump right into play without spending a lot of time doing their own building and character creation, but had played the neighborhoods that shipped with the game to satiety. Others have a tendency to fall into ruts, building similar-looking sims and playing the same scenarios over and over, and feeling a need for someone else to show them a different path. These are the people I can be of the most service to. For their sake, I needed to present a challenge to their preconceptions and their habits right out of the gate. Every household needed to be in a crisis that needed a resolution - soon! - and the decision had to be a hard one. Ideally, it should challenge their assumptions about what's supposed to happen and turn their expectations on their ear.

That's why the obvious Cinderella figure who, in the default fairy tale scenario, would marry Prince Charming and live happily ever after, didn't fall in love with Prince Charming until after getting pregnant during sympathy sex with the elderly widower. Also, Prince Charming, though he has plenty of Nice points, is a spoiled rich boy who has knocked up the neighborhood's obvious Bad Girl, who has also had a fling with Prince Charming's dad, a Criminal Mastermind. It's fun to see how people who normally treat Nice points as an indicator of where sims stand on the good/evil scale scramble to sort that one out! Every way forward in every storyline is going to hurt some innocent or violate some principle. If you want to get into a rut in Widespot, you have to dig it for yourself.

But was I really prepared for all the ways players might move these stories forward?

I've talked on here before about how you can't control the work once it's out in the world. No two readers ever read the same book, because of what they bring to it. When writing for young people, you also expect/hope to be read differently by the same person at different ages. Heck, the nature of brain growth is such that a kid who starts reading a book on Friday night and finishes Tuesday morning may have grown a new synapse in that time which changes the meaning of the first paragraph for him. This is one of the delightful things about writing for people with growing brains. It's also how stupid arguments arise over what a book "really" means.

But I have even less control over what happens in Widespot, and I was a bit apprehensive about it. I grow attached to all my characters, and at least in a book I know they'll get the ending I feel is right for them. The Widespot characters I had to let go of completely during the opening scenes of their stories, or the whole project was pointless. Most people would play to resolve the situations I gave them, while others would play to make them worse. They would make villains out of sims I created as flawed but sympathetic, victims of sims of whom I was fond. Was I prepared for that? If I wasn't, I would have to restrict access beyond the ideal audience. I could not make a toy, give it away on the street corner, and then complain about how the recipients used it.

I addressed this concern at every step of development, doing my best to envision all the possible ramifications of each decision I made. I had a "Fivey threshhold" in my head, so named for a board member whose games tend toward what Louisa May Alcott used to call "sensation literature." The game is rated T for Teen, and its commercially-available content is much tamer than the standards for sex and violence in modern YA, yet Fivey has managed to use mods and staging to tell stories of serial rape and murder, infanticide, domestic abuse, prostitution - and, I hasten to add, redemption and recovery, though that's not what sticks in the reader's head. So as I worked on each element, I would periodically ask myself: What awful thing might Fivey do with this? If I could stand it, I could proceed.

But I found myself fretting about Certain Other People, people I really don't want to get their mitts onto Widespot. After what I told you about Fivey, you are now thinking that they must be certifiable psychos, but in fact my problem with them is more that they are ruthless bowdlerizers. Everything that I find interesting about a neighborhood they destroy. The thought of them pushing around my imperfect little pixeldolls distressed me, yet I didn't see any way of excluding them from access. When I mentioned this to Aegagropilon, she reassured me that these people would never download Widespot. What with aliens, interracial couples, boys who play with dollhouses, girls with masculine faces, improbable noses, and use of face templates that one of the people in question had condemned as "monstrous," I hadn't included anything that would attract them. They were not my audience, they would never be tempted to play with my toy, and nothing they said about it would matter.

This is important to remember, too. The target audience is permeable. Not every 9-to-14-year-old who likes fantasy will like your particular MG fantasy, and that's all right. Not everyone to whom the 9-to-14 year olds who do like it recommend it will be in that age range, or normally like fantasy; but they might like it, too. A middle grade book may be read by a precocious early reader, by a reluctant older reader, by a parent, by a librarian, by a grandparent, by someone with insomnia who has absolutely nothing else to do. Anyone can happen along and experience your work. If they enjoy it, good. That's how breakout hits and bestsellers happen.

If they don't, it's not their business.

Not even of the Gatekeepers.

But the reasons for that are complicated and this post is already way too long. (But of which of my posts is this not true?)

1 comment:

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