Outside Your Brain

So, I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, but…

It’s very important to know your audience. The people you’re writing for. And it’s important to realize they’re different from you.

For those who don’t follow my life more obsessively than I do, when my husband works too much and is exhausted, he likes stupid romantic comedies. And because I sit next to him while doing these posts, or finishing a short story, or something, I end up second-hand watching them.

Yesterday night, I actually wasn’t even trying to watch, just sitting there going “derp” because I had a pretty bad allergic reaction to a food I’ve never had issues with before (Okay, I’d had an issue once, but I assumed it was something else. No. Rest assured, there won’t be a third attempt.)

So, I was watching, and this movie seemed to be up our alley, as it was city couple goes to small town, hilarity ensues. And eventually love.

There have been all sorts of romantic comedies on this plot (And I’m not being coy, I actually don’t remember the title. I was pretty sick.) We expected corny but fun.

But it was like the movie writers were tone deaf for real people. It wasn’t so much that I disagreed with the characters’ opinions: I expected them to be insular New Yorkers.

It wasn’t that the female character loudly tells everyone she’s a member of PETA or a vegetarian. We kind of expected that.

It’s more that they were offensively indifferent and rude to their hosts, and did absolutely stupid things because they assumed their hosts were mentally retarded. And don’t get me started on the characterization of “flyover country people.”

The writers’ smug superiority over some of their characters came through loud and clear.

Then we got to the part the couple describe their infertility struggles, and Dan, Dan who is the most tolerant viewer in the world, turned it off because it was obvious no one writing that story had ever even talked to someone who struggled with infertility and also that the characters, the way they were, would consider kids somewhere between an hindrance and a nuisance.

But what stuck out all over it is that the writers thought they were being funny and charming, and that their characters were the …. people we all aspired to be.

It sort of reminded me when someone tried to steal Janet Evanovich’s thing. So, I don’t know now, but in early books, Stephanie Plum, the world’s most unlikely bounty hunter has a thing where she loves doughnuts. And she might maybe be a size too large.

Someone obviously trying to copy this, had her main character who is elephantine steal doughnuts from a room with a decomposing corpse before calling the police. The author is probably still wondering why that didn’t take off.

Look, some of these will be your blind spots. But unless your villains/less than admirable characters are aliens or animals, do try to show some respect for them, even if they’re people you personally would hate in real life.

And more important? Try to find a reader that you think is your target.

Sure, okay, maybe your target is upper-class NYC executives. Maybe that was the target for the movie. Which is great, except that it’s not that large an audience, nor known for going crazy for rom coms. (Or indie books.) And if you strike out with them, you got nothing.

So, aim for a wider target. And make sure your supposed good guys aren’t so annoying a vast majority of the audience legitimately wants them to die, not fall in love.

72 comments

  1. Reminds me of the time I picked up a few of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series (murder mysteries set in National Parks, which is a nifty concept) at the local thrift store.

    I read all the ones I picked up, used them to support my book habit, and will never buy another one. They were so blatantly written to cater to the sensibilities of Manhattanite liberals (aka, the people in charge of publishing) that it wasn’t even funny, the one or two times that you couldn’t tell who the villain was by seeing who checked the most boxes on “religious rich straight white male businessman” were genuinely surprising, and the MC was not someone who was enjoyable enough to be around to put up with all the other nonsense.

    1. I’ve had this problem with a lot of the modern mystery stories I’ve read. The detective is someone I’d like to chuck into the Grand Canyon, not invite into my house to keep me company while I drink coffee. Some of them, it might be that the author has created a character that Manhattan publishing folks will like, but in many other cases, I think the author is intentionally creating someone horrible. They’re “being daring” and “moving beyond the stereotypes” of a likable amateur detective who cares about justice and have transgressively made a selfish, miserable detective that I wouldn’t read about on a bet.

      1. Interesting. I didn’t find Qwill that obnoxious, at least in the early-to-mid series. He obviously had different values than I did, but not enough to bother me. Admittedly, there was that one book where, as a billionaire, he was going around dissing people who wanted to be paid for their work, but by that time, there was so much else wrong with the series that complaining about that was distinctly secondary.

        If you don’t mind telling me, what bothered you about him?

      2. I enjoyed the first dozen (or so) Cat Who mysteries, but finally gave up on them not because they were twee, but because they were so improbable. The area is described as having a population in the low thousands and there were at least 20 people getting killed there every year. It was more dangerous to live in Pickaxe City than to sleep on park benches in Central Park.

          1. Normally, yes. But it got so bad in the Cat Who books I could no longer ignore it. It got to the point where I would start giggling as the body count started climbing because it was so ridiculous.

            You can have an improbably high body count in a small town without making it risible. Look at Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles stories. But Pecan Springs is on I-35 between San Antonio and Austin where there is a lot of “passing through.” Not some cul-de-sac end-of-the-world nowhere place like the Cat Who stories are set,

            For that matter China Bayles and Jane Marple leave there home towns so a good chunk of the deaths they investigate are not literally committed on their doorsteps.

            My point is it is lazy writing to have an astronomically improbable number of murders in a locale where there are too few people to support it credibly. (For that matter Rex Stout kept finding ways to pry Nero Wolfe out of that brownstone.) I am willing to buy individuals attracting an incredibly large number of murderers to keep a series going but tossing in an incredible number of murders in a small geographical area without some explanation of why is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

              1. HOLY COW! The author of that story also had a story called “The Trolley Problem,” which correctly observes that the way to solve the Trolley Problem is to kill the guy who posed it!

                (Theoretically. I mean, you can say you imaginarily kill the person who imaginarily posed it to you. But this is a superhero world with supervillains who recreate the thought problem in real life, so… yup, correct solution. I am proud that I’m not the only one to notice.)

                1. This will sound crazy, but… Tumblr has been good for my sanity.

                  Sure, it shows Chesterton’s thing about ‘virtues held with all the rebellious pride of sins’ … but these kids are building up civilization from match-stick sized chunks of civilization, picked from piles of rotting trash.

                2. Oh my LORD she’s Batman.

                  “Flynn, she’s done this thirteen times, weren’t you listening? She shot a known supervillain while he was in the commission of a major crime! She was sitting here waiting for us with the gun on the ground and her ID out! She confessed! She’s not a flight risk!” ‘Phil’ glared at Ms Harmer, then at the two superheroes. “Next time, at least try to stop her… not that that’s easy,” he added grudgingly. “Just… get lost, all of you. We’ll take it from here.”

                  But more.

            1. The Lord Peter books not only happen all over the place, the deaths are often at a remove and he gets called in because they know he’s a detecting type.

              He or Harriet stumble on an inordinate number, but not all.

          2. It’s interesting to look at Christie, again. Looking over Miss Marple books on Kindle, first, there are only 12 books, and second, after a quick glance, it looks like only 25% (3 books) take place in St. Mary Mead.

            1. Exactly. And only three over a period of what? Three decades. That’s reasonable.

              1. There were a few more murders than that, I think, because there are the various Marple short stories, at least a couple of which have murders in St. Mary Mead, and at least one book includes multiple murder. But yeah, the per capita death count isn’t nearly what Moose County had, especially if you consider that those books took place over the lifetime of a single Siamese cat who wasn’t a kitten when they started.

    2. Amusingly, A Caribbean Mystery starts with Miss Marple about to wall a modern novel because it’s so ridiculous. (Well, since there wasn’t a wall nearby, so to be precise, stop reading it at page 23 because the characters were tedious and idiotic). P.S. for trad pub – I’ll buy every Agatha Christie on Kindle when it’s $2, but at $10 I’ll wait forever (so yes, A Caribbean Mystery was on sale for $1.99, so I had to get it).

        1. I’ll try to do so when I see them on sale. Note that the early ones are in public domain, so lots of editions of those are available, of varying quality. The HarperCollins editions are high quality, well worth $1.99; it appears that HC rotates through with a title or two on sale at a time, since I’ve picked up about a dozen over the last year or so.

          Currently on sale:

          1. BTW, didn’t think it would show the link with a huge preview – let me know if there’s a better way for next time.

        2. I’ve been reading them on Libby, an app where you put in your real-world library system and card number and send ebooks to kindle. I’m not passionate enough about Christie to want to own them in pixel form. Did something mildly stupid and bought two different Margery Allingham collections on kindle so I could track the whole of Campion getting acquainted with his future wife (Libby didn’t have much Allingham), but at least that’s 3 books per $10, not 1.

  2. If your characters are likeable you can get away with formula,at least for a while. I’ve just re-read two Agatha Chrisrie novels and in both cases the obvious suspect is guilty, with a (possibly) unexpected accomplice, and an alibi that seems to clear them. No sure I want to pick up a third one.
    Ellery Queen did the same thing, but with a different tone: Ellery would be sincere in his reasoning, admit his mistake and go on. Even agonize over it. Those books can be reread even when you know who,did it, because the characters are likeable.

    1. I enjoyed my re-reading of A Caribbean Mystery, despite the fact that I had figured out who was “it”, because I like Christie’s characters and characterizations. (I didn’t guess the first time I read it, decades ago; when re-reading, I didn’t remember for sure who was guilty, but sort of remembered, and as I went was able to verify my hazy sort of recollection).

      I really like some Ellery Queen (the author), including the ones without Ellery Queen (the detective), such as The Four Johns, but too much EQ at once (especially EQ the detective) leaves me wanting a break.

  3. I read a story in which a young princess loudly tempted Fate by declaring that the princesses a giant had killed deserved to die for not rescuing themselves, but even as I read it, I knew she would never be a captive unable to rescue herself because such hubris was so feminist

      1. Or at least deserves to get her butt handed to her by fate/divine providence/angry fairies until she grows up (common theme in fairy tales. The proud nasty minded princess/prince gets kicked by the story until they learn humility.)

        1. Were it a prince, of course, he would, even if he’s better than the princess or his nastiness is contrived.

          Then I did slap down some proud princesses in *The Princess Seeks Her Fortune*….

  4. I wonder if the donuts thing could actually be made to work if it was presented as a serious problem for the character? Basically something the character knows is a problem but can’t seem to stop.

    The “I like sweet things and can’t seem to drop this dress size,” is a normal annoying problem that everyone can relate to. The “I spoil crime scenes to steal food from a rotating corpse,” screams a character that is seriously broken in some fundamental way.

  5. “the characters, the way they were, would consider kids somewhere between an hindrance and a nuisance.”

    I read a work by an architect who described clients who were going to have two kids and wanted bedrooms on the opposite side of the house from the master bedroom, so the kids would not interfere with their lives.

    1. Plus a nanny suite, right? Otherwise it would be a long walk every time Offspring had a bad dream or the flu.

      The children would probably be -better off- with random nannies, given parents like that.

      1. Nope. The architect persuaded them to put a small room near the main bedroom, which she knew they could repurpose as a nursery.

    2. The frustrating thing is that seems to be the standard floor plan for so many houses. The place we got, the master bedroom is in the back, and the other bedrooms are in the front.

      Technically they’re right next to eachother, but you have to go the long way around to get from the master bedroom to where the kids’ bedrooms are.

      On the other hand, the new one is a little Velcro baby, and the older one does not like sleeping alone, so we’ve ended up with both of them in the master bedroom. Fortunately it’s a big master bedroom, but still…

      1. This made it really hard when we were hunting for a house in 2003. We LIKE our kids. We don’t want a “parent’s suite” to lock ourselves away from the boys….

        1. We saw some of those when we were shopping in 2016, too. I can actually see some benefits to the structure if the kids are old enough to be somewhat responsible and there’s a good den/living/family room for when you want to be together. If our daughter were a lighter sleeper, I’d probably wish heartily that we could give her a bit more distance from ours when the baby cries in it after her bedtime.

          On the other hand, I used to sneak out of bed at night. I later learned that my parents were aware of some of these expeditions.

          1. Like almost everything in life, it all depends. Our currently domicile has all the bedrooms right next together, and basically no sound insulation, which means that everyone who is a light sleeper gets woken up when anyone gets up. When the sprinklers go on, it’s noticeable. And so on, although at least we can’t hear the fridge or washer/dryer from the bedrooms.

            With a multi-story house, there can be pluses having a bedroom on the ground floor, e.g. to use for outside people (teaching music or similar) or if someone has a very different work/school schedule so others aren’t disturbed; having the MBR on the other side would help with that situation too.

      2. Ah, the “mother in law” rooms!

        The house in Texas had a freaking apartment as the master bedroom, across from a little bedroom/sitting-room, and then on the faaaaaaaar end of the house, there’s two nice, big bedrooms, so it was like having a one bedroom apartment sitting on top of a two bedroom house.

        1. Well, I want my MIL much farther away than that! (Fortunately she’s across a big, wide ocean 🙂 )

          1. Amusingly enough, both my husband and I would probably rather have our mother in law living that close, than our mothers. (It’s the love vs bad habits thing.)

  6. I think the most brutal critical slam about good and bad characters in a narrative was administered by Mark Twain, in eviscerating Fenimore Cooper:
    “…the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.”

    1. But people really really liked James Fenimore Cooper, and his books were giant bestsellers.

      So basically, Twain is that generation’s bestseller slamming the previous generation’s bestseller. And they both ended up in American literature classes, so…..

      1. I liked “The Deerslayer” and “Last of the Mohicans.” But I also chuckle at Mark Twain’s complaints, too.

  7. I think you may have something there – the target audience is the NYC/Cali exec, who will buy and pay the makers. The lack of end-audience/readers is the exec’s problem.

  8. “But what stuck out all over it is that the writers thought they were being funny and charming, and that their characters were the …. people we all aspired to be.”

    Oh. My ghod. This is the thing that makes me shut off 99% of tv shows. The characters, frankly, are worthless assholes. And I’m talking about the lead characters here, the supposed “good guys” we are meant to find sympathetic.

    Like the superhero show where the lead character sleeps with a team member’s girlfriend (or boyfriend when they want to be extra edgy) and the whole show is about the uproar of infidelity. As if a SUPERHERO wouldn’t keep it in his pants for the sake of the team. These things just happen, you see. (Teen Titans. There’s also drug use, suicide, and other choice tidbits pulled fresh from the sewer. Super classy.)

    Projection. The degenerate a-holes writing, filming and producing this crap think it’s normal. Johnny Depp and Amber Herd, Will Smith and Jada Pinket-Smith, these are not anomalies, apparently. They’re the ‘norm’.

    Then there’s the “cerebral” shows, such as “Night Sky.” TL/DR, there’s an old Boomer couple with a gateway to another star buried in their back yard. With a teleporter in it. I fast forwarded through the first episode, maybe ten interesting minutes in a one-hour show. Themes are -it sucks to be old-, -Boomers suck-, -politicians suck-, and -elder suicide-. Critics like it.

    I mentioned the alien teleporter artifact in the basement, right? Alien planet? Brave new world to explore? Yeah. We get ‘boomers suck’ for an hour. I can’t even give you a spoiler, because absolutely nothing happens for the whole episode. We are treated to “atmosphere” and “themes” instead. I predict a sharp turn into infidelity, betrayal, murder, and torture for future episodes. But I don’t care, because I won’t be watching.

    Which is why my TV viewing is anime, kung-fu shows and Korean shows. Even if there are scummy or political parts, it goes over my head. Those productions are still back around the 1960s or 1970s for moral values, which is about as edgy as I want to put up with.

    1. and TV execs wonder why everyone is watching 20 year old shows on Hulu instead of watching their latest brilliance…

    2. “Johnny Depp and Amber Herd, Will Smith and Jada Pinket-Smith, these are not anomalies, apparently. They’re the ‘norm’.”

      In Hollywood, I suspect that they are–or, at the very least, are more common than in the rest of society.

    3. I went through a long period of not having cable TV, and I’ll admit it was a huge shock to run into some current shows treating infidelity as heroic.

      We aren’t even talking 60-70’s era. We’re talking about a transition that happened from somewhere around 2000 and 2011.

      1. I agree. I put it roughly at 2010 that the wheels really came off. Television in the 2000s was meh, but they went nuts after 2010. Now cable is actively repugnant, as Netflix is also becoming. Nice thing about streaming, there is more than one source. >:D

        Interesting parallel with the comic book industry, which went nuts in 1992/93. I stopped reading comics then because they had become gory, unpleasant and Woke. I found out later that both Marvel and DC had come within an inch of bankruptcy back then. Taken over by the powers of Wokeness who rule to this day.Those company’s sales are 10% of what they were in the 1980s.

        1. there is no ‘inch’, Marvel has declared bankruptcy.. twice? three times?

          1. I am unsurprised. One need only look at their sales numbers to see that the company functions as a money laundering operation, and their chief managers have denounced Marvel customers as racist/sexist/homophobes on several occasions.

            1. in the early 90s, ‘really good sales’ for a book was two or three million copies
              now, its 200k
              in the early 90s, the cancel threshold was around 75k copies
              now its like 25-30k

  9. Back when I wrote material for businesses, I always researched the target market of the business, and did my best to make it sound like something they’d be interested in. Otherwise, the audience doesn’t listen.

  10. If this was “Did You Hear About The Morgans?” (Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Sam Elliott), I walked in on the second half and thought it was mildly amusing, with most of the jokes being at the expense of the shallow Manhattanites. I would have rated it about on par with the Tim Allen (and Kirstie Alley?) movie about two buffoonish New Yorkers hiding out in Amish country for reasons. The family members with the streaming media account (who were watching it when I stopped by) liked Morgans enough to watch it a second time later on. Admittedly, none of us had really been in the characters’ shoes when it came to the infertility/adoption subplot, so maybe that was why we were amused by it.

  11. Colorado Springs in real life is apparently the Cranberry Cove of mid-sized cities. It still creeps me out that Sarah mentioned having stayed at a hotel that I had just seen an episode of Homicide Hunter about….

    Although it also creeps me out that I stayed several years in a row at a convention hotel that was later the site of a notorious murder by a janitor, who was also a petty thief in people’s rooms and suitcases, and whom I’m pretty sure I talked to, in a busy hallway (and I don’t normally remember people, so something must have made my brain pay attention).

    Every city I’ve ever lived in, and a lot of smaller towns, have been the site of some kind of notorious murder. And a lot of times, even the local news is a bit shy about covering these cases, except on the late night news.

  12. Anyway… Lt. Joe Kenda’s autobiography is full of non-cozy things. (And if you buy it on Audible as an audiobook, he yells at you early on, just to wake you up. And it’s not the kind of audiobook to go to sleep with, plus you learn much more gross stuff about some of his cases than what was televised.)

    But he really did go on vacation with his wife and kids, and he really did meet a nice guy who got murdered just a few hours later. So it really does happen in real life, to some people. (IIRC, it’s not an episode in the Homicide Hunter show, because the TV channel had serious doubts as to whether anybody would believe it.)

    1. Oh, and he did crack his first case by noticing evidence that nobody else did. But then the rest was a ridiculous amount of legwork and paper analysis. Like, months of it.

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