As part of my ROW80 goals (I know, I started early) I decided to read The Art of Compelling Fiction by Christopher Leland (Story Press, 1998). In his first chapter, he addresses the critical issue of what the reader wants. First, I think this is a brilliant place to start. After all, we won't sell books and stories without readers and second, I think this is an aspect often overlooked by writers.
Leland lists four different purposes a reader has for reading:
To Learn About Themselves -- I think this is the basis for my short story, "Seeing Sarah," and some of my other works. That story puts an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation (being called to the deathbed of his ex-wife) and challenges readers to ask themselves what they would do in a similar situation.
To Learn About Others -- Not just other people, but other places as well. This is why I read. Right now I'm reading Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg, a book that allows me to get to know the men that led that battle, from both sides. Another favorite book of mine is Ursala K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, in which she creates her own world and culture. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is another example of this. A short story of mine, "The Best Part of the Chicken," targets this group.
Escapism -- I am working on a techno-thriller that addresses this need and I think this makes up the overwhelming majority of books and stories on the market.
Same Old Story -- Some stories are classics that are worth retelling. I've always wanted to set "Richard III" in the future.
Now, this doesn't mean a particular reader will read just one type of book. While that might be the case, there is a lot of back-and-forth in what one reader reads and even an overlap of some of these categories: an escapist novel can tell us about ourselves or others and a "same old story" can be a good escapist work.
What about you, do you write for yourself, or for your reader? In which category do you works fall?