Thursday, December 22, 2011

Targeting the Audience

I’m working on a fantasy romance novella centered around a computer role-playing game, and my first set of critiquer comments started me thinking about how we conceive of a book’s or story’s target audience. Specifically, what can we assume the audience knows prior to reading the piece of fiction? I don’t know much about computer RPGs myself. I play Dungeons and Dragons, tabletop version with dice, but my knowledge of fantasy video games comes from overhearing my husband playing them and listening to his discussions with our sons about games they’ve played. So I thought the terminology I included in the first draft of my story was the sort of thing almost anyone would be familiar with.

Specific example: “VR” for “virtual reality.” The hero and heroine are both computer geeks. In her POV, she naturally thinks “VR,” not the longer phrase. To my surprise, the commenter didn’t recognize this term. I’ve often been chided for over-explaining in my fiction, and I thought this was one point that didn’t need explanation.

In a case like this, can the writer figure that anybody who’d pick up a story whose action occurs mostly inside a computer game would already know such things? Or should an author always write for a general audience that needs explanations for anything non-mundane? Spelling everything out might annoy the target audience, but failing to spell out enough could lose potential casual readers who might otherwise enjoy the story. Nowadays, of course, nobody writes like the erudite authors of past centuries who often quoted long passages in foreign languages with no translations, on the assumption that their readers, being (of course) university-educated, wouldn’t need translations. On the other hand, explaining things most readers already know feels like talking down to them, as well as leading to unnecessary wordiness. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain historical novels lean toward less explanation where background details are concerned. She uses period-accurate terms for clothing, etc., letting the reader infer what kind of garment is being described instead of defining it.

Yes, I know, when in doubt, we should work in bits of information in subtle ways that don’t disrupt the flow of the story. Still, is there a guiding principle on how much background one can reasonably expect of a reader? For instance, murder mysteries have different generic expectations from romance novels, and the author usually expects a reader who picks up a book in one genre or another to be at least somewhat familiar with the genre’s conventions and not balk at, say, a dead body in the library in a mystery or a “cute meet” in a romantic comedy. And I would have expected a habitual reader of fantasy to be familiar with the shade of meaning fans assign to the word “mundane” (another point that puzzled my commenter).

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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