Every one of us tries to imagine our ideal reader, and we usually fail. That’s because there isn’t usually a single ideal reader. Instead, we have an audience. The thing we lose sight of is that we create said audience. What kind of folks do you want reading your work? Who do you see enjoying it? What do you want them to take away when they close your book?
We all have an idea of our perfect audience. For example, I write to adults, male or female, with open minds and a good sense of humor. I think that readers who can laugh at themselves and others, and aren’t afraid to consider the world from an unpopular point of view would enjoy what I write. But do I write to an audience like that? Sometimes I do, other times, not so much. I do consider a few things about the audience as I outline a new idea, and with every story the "ideal audience" changes.
Who will find the subject interesting?
I’m don't pick a safe or fluffy subject to interest a particular audience. The readers I imagine enjoying my work aren’t interested in pure escapism, they want to be challenged too. Another writer might prefer an audience who simply want to be entertained, so she might choose a subject that’s light and not emotionally demanding. And there's nothing wrong with that. Know who will want to read your work, and be aware that a lot of readers may not like it at all, then make the decision whether or not you want the ideal audience, or the big one.
Set the right tone.
When considering the audience I want, I have to get the right tone. Mocking is not going to work. Whiny is likely to backfire too. A tone that is blunt, but not aggressive, is what I believe I need. Humor allows me to do this in most cases. On the other hand, the issue or subject can also dictate the tone. If I’m writing about a serious subject like domestic violence, humor isn’t always the best tone to convey my story. What works for one book will not always work for the next, so writers should always question the tone as they’re writing and whether it suits both subject and audience. If I’m writing for an audience who simply wants to be entertained, a casual tone is definitely the way to go. However, I also write to an audience that wants facts, and casual doesn’t work. My voice must be definitive, authoritative and a formal narratives give that feeling.
How do you want your audience to feel?
In other words, what reaction do you want to evoke? Whether or not you want controversy is going to affect the tone, subject and story you tell. If you want empathy from your audience, you’re going to write characters that appeal to them. If you want to anger them, you’re going to write characters that attack the things your audience holds dear.
Don’t forget demographics.
Age, sex, race, cultural background, education, social class, religious believes, etc. all play a role in how a reader is going to receive your story. “It’s just a book.” you say, but if you want to hit a wide audience, you have to take into consideration the unique characteristics attributed to each of these things. Women naturally relate to a female protagonist and men to a male. It is what it is. Yes, some readers can make the jump no matter what gender you use, but most can’t. A devout Catholic might not be able to appreciate a Satanist protagonist’s point of view, just as an Atheist might find your southern Baptist preacher protagonist hard to swallow. Do you have to write all generic shit to avoid this? No, just give your characters and your story elements that everyone can relate to as human beings.
How do you know you’re getting it right? You get feedback before you publish or query. Beta readers are priceless. Find as many as you can, from as many different backgrounds as possible. Listen to what they have to say, and use that feedback to target what you write to the folks you hope will enjoy it.
And don’t forget yourself. If you don’t like what you’re writing, odds are your audience will feel the same way. Above all else, write what you like to read. Fight the urge to impress your audience by writing in a way that’s not “you.” Trying to impress only leads to the author losing credibility and readers.