How Not to Anger Your Reader

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This evening I finished re-reading one of my favorite books, Naughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman. And once again, I found myself confused. ‘I love this book to pieces,’ I told myself. ‘Why is it that I always, always feel so unsatisfied after I read it?’

And then it hit me: After a book that I could really and truly relate to, Blackman ended it in such a way that entirely lost my compassion as a reader.

If you haven’t read the book and don’t want spoilers, stop here! Otherwise, I’ve got an intriguing bit of advice to offer you, so keep on reading.

For those who haven’t read the book, the synopsis can be found here. A quick summary: Sephy and Callum have been best friends and potential love interests since they were little, but there’s one problem: Sephy’s a Cross and Callum’s a Naught. Crosses are rich and well-respected, where Naughts are much less wealthy and generally looked down upon. Callum’s mom was a servant in Sephy’s family home and a friend of Sephy’s mom, so they were allowed to play together as kids. Meanwhile, as both of them get older and come to understand what being a Naught or a Cross really means, life finds a way of pulling them apart. Years later, she’s taken hostage by a group of Naughts, and it turns out Callum’s her new prison-guard. He’s not the Callum she knew… Not at first, anyway. Eventually she gets through to him, they sleep together, and he helps her escape. But it turns out that she’s pregnant with his kid. Her daddy dearest does not want  a mixed-class grandchild, and  recognizes that Callum’s her lifelong friend and that in a way he saved her life, so he makes her an offer: Give up the baby (abortion, not adoption) and Callum, who’s sitting in a prison under charges of terrorism, won’t hang.

Now you’re up to date with the story, and I’ve brought you to where the author goes wrong.

Up until this point in the book, it’s been very clear who the intended audience is. Teens, 15-18 year old girls specifically but teens in general is a safe bet. Teens who understand infatuation and maybe even love, but the vast majority do not understand what it’s like to be expecting a child.

That brings us to the fatal flaw: Sephy chooses the baby. The final scene involves a pregnant Sephy all but screaming, ‘I love you, Callum!’ from the spectators’ area to Callum on the hanging block. He shouts, ‘I LOVE YOU T-‘, and hangs partway through.

This breaks my heart, and I’m sure it breaks almost every other reader’s heart too, but not in the good way. Because the reader the author has attracted generally doesn’t know what it’s like to be pregnant or a mother, they don’t comprehend the motherly bond that Sephy somehow has for this unborn child. Almost unanimously, they want Sephy to save Callum’s life because love is a concept the target audience can understand. And even if Sephy regrets giving up the child, even if it hangs over her head forever, that’s a loss the reader is willing to accept because from their frame of mind, it’s the lesser evil.

If the target audience were different, even five or six years older, Sephy’s choice would be much more acceptable. But as it is, it’s an unsatisfying ending to an otherwise very satisfying book.

So here’s the part you’ve been waiting for: How do you avoid this mistake in your own work?

  • Know your target audience. I’ve never really given this advice too much stock, myself, until the revelation that sparked this article. But it’s true: Knowing your target audience is key. ‘Target audience’ does not mean ‘only audience’. Even if you’re targeting 18 year old girls, you’ll have everything from 12 year old girls to 30 year old men reading your book whether you like it or not, so don’t worry about accidentally shoehorning yourself into a narrower reader-base.
  • Know what your target audience can and can’t relate to. In this case, they can relate to romance, even the forbidden kind. They can relate to the different classes of people keeping Sephy and Callum apart, to a degree. They can relate to the fear and confusion Sephy feels when she’s kidnapped, or the drive Callum feels to fit in with his fellow Naughts and fight for their rights even if it involves drastic measures. They can not relate to maternity. Note that yes, there are some readers who were moms at a young age or who’ve been close to people who were, so this isn’t everybody. But it’s enough. A vast majority, in fact.
  • Know what your target audience can and can’t tolerate. For example, they could tolerate Sephy choosing the baby if Callum heroically insisted she do it. They could tolerate Callum dying if it weren’t Sephy’s choice that doomed him. They could tolerate her choosing the baby if it would simply put Callum in jail for five or ten years. They can not tolerate Sephy letting Callum die for the sake of the unborn child. Not making a pro-choice stand here. I’m simply saying that the average teenage girl can’t possibly fathom another late-teenage girl sacrificing the love of her life for this. That’s pushing it a little too far past their tolerance point.
  • You don’t have to adhere to these standards, but don’t forget them. You’re completely free to flip your target audience the bird and tell them that if they want your work, they’ll have to take the frustration-inducing plot points with it. However, you’ll run the risk of angering your readers, or at least leaving them unsettled as Naughts and Crosses did for me. So if you ever find that the readers aren’t receiving your novels quite the way you’d like, try exploring the concepts I’ve given you here and seeing where it leads you.

You’ve heard what I think, now I want to hear what you think. Have you ever tripped over a book suffering from an unclear target audience? How could you tell? Alternatively, have you ever had this problem in your own work?

*******

Sorry about my silence this last week–had a surprise wedding to go to, then family to entertain. And as much fun as it would be to publish the article draft I managed to write this last week (10 Ways to Avoid Killing Your Relatives), I think I’m going to pull the ‘irrelevant and ranty’ card and contribute that particular list to my sad, empty WordPress trash bin.

Meanwhile, I’m back in business. So I’ll see you Wednesday!

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