This is easy to do when you want that dog or you’ve got a guide to creating terrifying ski masks. But novels are trickier. In queries, I’ve had people tell me their book appeals to “12-year-old boys who like adventure” or “everyone” or even “people who don’t read novels.”
The rule goes beyond the big picture, though. It’s one thing to write a book that, say, will appeal to fans of Nnedi Okorafor. It’s another to read the individual scenes and moments of your book and consider who you are writing for.
Consider this video by Daniel José Older:
Seriously I recommend you watch, both for the hilarity and the information, but for those who can’t, Older points out that italicizing non-English words when a character who speaks that language uses them isn’t true to how the character is actually speaking. Italics are used for emphasis. If a character wouldn’t say “I’m going to the bank to get money.” then they shouldn’t say “I’m going to el banco to get dinero.”
So why is this so common? (Because someone decided English-only speakers needed to be guided by the hand around foreign words?) However it came about, it was picked up by many English periodicals for their style guidelines. But guidelines were made to be broken. What’s more important is how it will be read by the audience you’re writing for, and if that’s the effect you want.
Italics is a very micro audience consideration. There are bigger ones, though, within a book as a whole.
When The Hunger Games became a movie, a number of (mostly white) people responded with outrage about the actress playing Rue being black. The Dark Fantastic has a post here citing that outrage and the dangerous implications behind it.
The outrage is racist and gross regardless, but it has an extra element of the absurd: Rue is described as black in the books.
I’ve seen a couple other white sci-fi writers despair over this. “Even if I try to describe my characters as they are, readers will still think they’re white!”
Ahem. Not all readers.
Just remember this question: Which readers are you writing for?
A character who is a POC and/or Indigenous should not be written to teach white readers about racism. LGBTQ+ characters shouldn’t be written to teach straight readers to treat LGBTQ+ people like people. Disabled characters shouldn’t be written to inspire non-disabled readers. Any character part of a group or groups underrepresented and/or oppressed shouldn’t be there solely for readers of oppressor groups.
Doing writing right doesn’t always equal might, though. The links above show there are plenty of stories that don’t follow that advice and sell quite well. There are also storytellers who stick only to straight, white, non-disabled, etc. characters and sell quite well. There are also storytellers who do quite well and aim for blank slate characters the reader can project what the please on, though as the Rue case above shows, often the reader will default to oppressor groups even with evidence to the contrary. A blank slate is still a loaded choice.
The act of writing is about constantly making choices. So if you find yourself struggling over a character for any reason, just remember who you’re writing them for.
As Sarah Stumpf of Bisexual Books recently said, “I have no interest in characters in literature who look like me but are not for me.”
So writers, when have you thought about your audience at a scene level?