Personas for Fiction Writers!

I’m going to take what I hope to be a short side journey—short mostly because I have to test this stuff to see if it works—to talk about a new technique that I learned for my day job: writing personas.

(I work as a content/SEO writer.)

The human brain is weird. The general idea behind writing is that you first start with your audience. “Know your audience!” So you think about who your audience might be, or you think about people you know are your audience (because they’ve been your audience before), or you decide that there are certain types of people you want to write for, and try to write for them.

But what professional marketers do goes beyond that. They create a “persona,” that is, a character who represents their audience. They won’t just make one, but three to five of them, often with alliterative names like “Eric Entrepreneur” or “Sharon Chef.”

What I did, for my day-job assignment to write some personas, was to brainstorm the categories of people our business wants as our audience, then find some actual people in those categories and figure out how old they were, what gender, what their education and background were, their financial situation, how they saw the world, what other things they were interested in, and so on. I did this by pulling up a lot of LinkedIn profiles. Now LinkedIn thinks I might be a recruiter! They want me to sign up for a pro account.

Anyway, I gathered those traits together and gave them names. (They’re for work so I won’t get more specific about what traits they were.)

As a marketer, I was probably supposed to stop there, but as a fiction writer, I knew there was further to go: they weren’t actual characters yet, and had not yet come alive. So I gave them a few traits from the people I knew in those roles. “Air force mom and aggressive Christmas deployer” was one. I made my personas characters so they felt more like people that I cared about.

Then I came home and did the same thing for my readers, building their personas.

I had started gathering some data on my readers a few weeks earlier, because I want to rebuild my website and I thought I might as well do it using the marketing tricks I’ve been picking up. This data was not truly objective; I just went through all the reviews of my work online on Goodreads, LibraryThing, and Amazon and copy/pasted them into a document.

What it looked like was that I have two sets of readers:

  • Men who like big ideas and references back to SF/F/H novels.
  • Women who felt moved by themes of recovery, hope, and subversion.

This is a gross overstatement! But that’s what a persona does, is take a lot of complex information and turn it into a chunk of audience information that you can reference easily.

And…I’m stretching the truth a little, here. I actually came up with a third set of admirers, who were the people I wanted to be writing for:

  • People who were formerly the cool goth kids.

Alas, when I went to write the personas, the former cool goth kid wasn’t someone who actually showed up in my research, and trying to “force” the creation of that persona never clicked, so I eventually had to admit that I was wrong.

If there are former cool goth kids reading my books, that’s not how they see themselves. And because sometimes I’m lucky enough to have friends read my books, I could back up the first two groups of readers with multiple people I actually know. The former cool goth kids I actually know…don’t read my books. Or tell me if they do.

Here’s what I came up with, based on the things positive reviewers said, the people I know who are like them, and some whatever facts I was able to glean about them from their Goodreads bios:

Ted Teacher

  • Reads sci fi mostly, but will read fantasy and horror
  • Generally well read
  • Loves B I G I D E A S but not stories without good characters
  • Gen X to Boomer generation
  • Favorite authors include Neil Stephenson, Robert Heinlein, David Brin
  • High school teacher (or is in some kind of professional role but loves to mentor/teach)
  • Suspects (or knows) he is on the neurodivergent spectrum
  • Has played tabletop games, reads comics, likes both Star Trek and Star Wars but thinks the true test of character is more in whichStar Trek series a person likes best
  • Was bullied in high school; once shamed someone else as an adult for being a “fake geek” and still feels bad about it now
  • Gets along with everyone and tries to do good in the world
  • Feels drained from drama and asks “Why can’t people just stop being idiots?!?” then goes, “Well, I am an idiot…”
  • Reads to feel like they’re in a really interesting hypothetical conversation with people who like them and respect their intellect, understanding, and geeky references
  • Has limits to his sense of humor; not everything is a joke, per se, although everything is a Dad Joke.

Somewhat Witchy Wanda

  • Reads fantasy and urban fantasy mostly, but will read (gothic) horror and a little SF, if it has a reputation as not being too sexist
  • Will read B I G I D E A S, but only if there’s an emotionally resonant plot twist attached
  • Will read pretty much anything if bored, but doesn’t think of herself as “widely read”
  • At least in the past at some point, internalized the idea of trying to need less, take up less space, and be polite (but may also intentionally be overturning or subverting that)
  • Millennial to Gen X
  • Values her found family fiercely, even if (or especially if) she has to spend most of her free time on her biological family
  • Reads to open doors to possibilities that she struggles with in real life, to feel appreciated
  • Known more by her guilty pleasure authors than necessarily her favorite ones; has read VC Andrews, Anne Rice, and multiple bodice rippers. Feels Persuasion is better than Pride and Prejudice
  • Not actually an official Witch™, but witch-adjacent; more “spiritual” than religious.
  • Works in a role so demanding that it would crush most people; often an underpaid professional
  • Has a shockingly dark, self-deprecating sense of humor that she is constantly get told not to say out loud (“Don’t say that about yourself!”); can be brutally cynical about the world but shrieks with delight if something good happens for people she knows

I know people outside these personas who read and like my work. But these people, and people who combine traits from both lists, show up in my life on a regular basis to say, “Hey, I read this thing of yours and I really liked it.”

And it really depends by book, too: Teacher Ted loves the Dean Kenyon books (Mindsight, Darkscan) and Somewhat Witchy Wanda loves short stories and the Alice books (Alice’s Adventures in Underland series, The Clockwork Alice).

What about books that both personas might like?

My latest book, The House Without a Summer, seems like a good connection point between the two personas, with lots of positive reviews from both types of people, although Somewhat Witchy Wanda tends not to like the ending as much as Teacher Ted did!

The book I just finished (House of Masks) is a space opera with lots of drama, somewhere between Dan Simmons’s Hyperion books (Teacher Ted) and The Phantom of the Opera (Somewhat Witchy Wanda). My hope is that it touches the same things as Repo: The Genetic Opera and The Wicked + The Divine, and hits a new audience of non-binary folks, but we’ll see. If it does, I’ll start building a persona for them (fingers crossed!).

Should you build personas?

So far, I’ve talked about my experience building personas. Because it’s really new for me, I can’t tell you how useful it is. Building personas is backed up by lots of marketing experience and it feels pretty resonant for me, so I’m going to hazard a guess that it wasn’t a waste of time for me. But your mileage may vary.

I would say that before you build personas, at a minimum, you should:

  • Be able to share your work with readers
  • Know what genre(s) you write in
  • Read those genres regularly to keep up with latest trends and build knowledge about the “best of” in those genres
  • Write and publish one or more books in that genre and gain reviews

Before then, I’d use yourself, or a reader you know well and who likes your work, as a “persona.” If you’re writing for people who aren’t like you (like kids!), definitely use someone else as your reference point.

What do you DO with personas?

So far, what I’ve done at my day job with personas is use them as tools to go, “Who am I writing this material for?” I don’t get to choose who my day job’s customers and job recruits are! But it’s been useful for going, “I’m writing this paragraph for myself and not for my readers,” or in sanity-checking topics before I even start. 

What I plan to do with them for my fiction is try writing a “wish story” for one or the other of them soon.

What are “wish stories”? I can’t remember if I’ve gone off about them yet here. 

I’ve been researching what makes people say “I wish someone would write that!” As I got more skilled at spotting hints that people wished a story would be written, I expanded my scope somewhat. Now I also include shared Facebook posts where people comment that they wished it was a story that would be written, or a post where people comment with additional story material. (I’m collecting them here:

I want to try guessing what kind of story a persona would like, then writing that as a short story. Can I write stories that way? I think I can; I’ve done a lot of ghostwriting. I would  treat the persona as my client. Will those stories please the people they are supposed to please? Will I feel weird about calculating all that out, instead of letting stories spontaneously emerge?

As with many elements of writing, I think writing, rather than marketing, to a persona is probably not a black-and-white situation, but a single tool in a toolbox. I suspect writing “wish stories” calculated to please a particular persona is nothing more or less than “writing to market,” or writing a story calculated to sell well in a particular genre niche.

Having to write to market for my ghostwriting clients was one of the reasons that I stopped ghostwriting. I was being told to go against my instincts for stories in the name of pleasing a market, then seeing what I was told to be “what the market wanted” not sell as well as when I pushed boundaries on the perceived market. (I had two main mystery series I ghostwrote for; the ones were I pushed perceived market boundaries are still doing four times as well as the other ones, with more reviews and written earlier.) 

I think my instincts are good when I know who the audience is, but with the books of my heart, I didn’t know who the audience was (other than me). 

So can I hire myself out to write stories my personas will like?

I’ll try it. I may not stick with it, but it should be an interesting experiment.

(Next time, back to the next episode of Writing Craft!)

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