This week the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring Dragons of the Valley, book two in the Chiril Chronicles by Donita Paul, winner of the first Clive Staples Award. It struck me as I was reading this story that one of Ms. Paul’s strengths as a writer is that she knows her audience.
Mind you, that audience is not some neatly defined niche. From the beginning of her foray into fantasy, Ms. Paul’s books have been marketed to “all ages.” And while this, like the others on her fantasy shelf, is published by a Christian house (WaterBrook), her books reach a span of readers, from Christians to seekers and those not opposed to Christianity.
So who exactly is her audience? I think I can construct a profile of her readers by looking at similarities in her stories.
Ms. Paul’s audience consists of people who like inventive “quest tales” with strong Christian themes. They enjoy “light fantasy” that avoids delving deeply into the dark recesses of evil, yet provokes thought. Her readers prefer stories that illuminate character more than track frenetic action. And her audience enjoys dragons — many different varieties. In short they love her world, with the seven high and seven low races; her characters that include some fun, quirky individuals; her stories that don’t glorify violence; and her spiritual depth that shows God to be intimately involved with Mankind.
Even as I write up this audience profile, I have some questions. Can a writer get locked into a world, a series, or a genre because of reader expectation? Or will readers trust an author they love and follow her as she ventures into other lands, with other characters? For example, can J. K. Rowling ever write anything besides Harry Potter?
I’m also wondering if formulaic writing stems from trying to write what an audience expects, and if so, how can an author keep from disappointing his readers, yet avoid falling into the “prairie romance pit” (also called the “Nancy Drew story design” 😉 )?
I think Ms. Paul shows us some of the answers. First is inventiveness. She’s constructed a big world which gives her room to add more continents and countries with varying cultural aspects. And she has multiple races, allowing her to feature different ones in different books. For example, the kimens, featured prominently in Dragons of the Valley, have unique characteristics from the other races readers have seen close up in earlier books.
Another thing that keeps Ms. Paul’s stories from becoming formulaic is plot variation. I might even say, plot growth. In my estimation, Ms. Paul continues to improve as a storyteller. Her plots, while retaining the quest aspect her readers are looking for, do not feel like a repeat of any other quest. There are twists and variations that make this new quest feel one of a kind.
On the flip side, an author who knows her audience must not do an about face on any of the elements her readers expect. For example, Ms. Paul’s books have become increasingly realistic, especially in the area of physical confrontations. And yet, violence is still downplayed. If this were not so, I suspect a good number of her readers would feel let down. In the same way, a story starting out in the typical “light fantasy” way her audience expects, could not become a dark tale without losing readers.
In the end, I think the secret to writing consistent fiction without falling into a formula is for an author to write stories he loves. Others who love the same kinds of stories will become his readership. In this way, the author can grow and change, and the audience will grow and change right along with him.
If you’re interested in seeing what participants in the CSFF Blog Tour for Dragons of the Valley are saying, visit these bloggers in the next few days:
Gillian Adams * Noah Arsenault * Amy Bissell * Red Bissell * Justin Boyer * Grace Bridges * Beckie Burnham * Morgan L. Busse * CSFF Blog Tour * Amy Cruson * D. G. D. Davidson * April Erwin * Amber French * Andrea Graham * Katie Hart * Ryan Heart * Bruce Hennigan * Becky Jesse * Cris Jesse * Jason Joyner * Julie * Carol Keen * Emily LaVigne * Shannon McDermott * Matt Mikalatos * Rebecca LuElla Miller * Joan Nienhuis * John W. Otte * Donita K. Paul * Sarah Sawyer * Chawna Schroeder * Tammy Shelnut * Kathleen Smith * James Somers * Fred Warren * Phyllis Wheeler * Dave Wilson