Saturday, February 16, 2013

Technical Topic -- Character and Query Letter

Someone asked elsewhere --

(I'm paraphrasing here)  "My story is about several main characters.  Which one do I build my query letter around?"

I have answers for about anything.

An ensemble cast of four, heigh-ho

So let's say your story follows four characters' intertwined lives. You want to know which of these four stories to emphasize in your query letter.

The really short answer is -- Any of them.
Your query letter can approach the manuscript  using any main character as your focal point.
I don't say you necessarily can talk about this manuscript mainly from the experience of the dog, but close.

If you have a strong instinct to cast the query using the story of LolaJo instead of Kindle, Edward, or Framis, then do so.
Nobody knows the story better than you.

But which is the optimal character?

Oh.  You want optimal?
I'd look at the manuscript as a whole and ask myself:

What's the point of the story?
What am I saying here?
Who gets the most on-stage time?
Who is present from pretty much the beginning to the end?
Who feeds us the most internals?
Whose problem fuels the action?
Whose resolution provides the emotionally satisfying ending?
Who has the most to gain or lose?
Who does the reader identify with?
When the last chapter rolls round, whose goal has been reached?'

This sort of stuff tells you who owns the story.

The general shape of the story also tells you.

Selecting the most important character in the room
If the manuscript is paced and plotted as a mystery -- if the point of the story is that a mystery gets solved -- I'd use the mystery-solver as the center of my query.
If the story is a Romance, I'd talk about the romantic couple.
If it's a coming-of-age story, I'd talk about my young person coming of age.
If this is a story of transformation of the antagonist, I'd choose the antagonist to talk about.

Your main and most active character is probably the one to pull front and center when you talk about your manuscript in the query.


  1. This post is another keeper, Jo. Keep 'em coming. ; )

  2. Hi Zan Marie --

    Lots of times, people KNOW all this. I mean, in their stomach they know which character should be spokesman in the query letter.

    That's why I say to go with instinct.

    But we get so uncertain at query letter time. We just panic. The obvious sorta escapes us.

  3. Anonymous10:45 PM

    Excellent, helpful post--but you better be careful. With all the great graphics you include, pretty soon I'm going to be coming here just to look at the pictures. ;)

    1. That's what they all say. "No. Really. I'm not reading the articles. I'm only here to look at the pictures." *g*

  4. I'm with Zan Marie - absolutely another keeper. I know this stuff or should know this stuff - but half the time I'm mucking around in words and I can't see the forest for the trees. Having it broken out like this is excellent. Thanks! - Margs

    1. I'm so glad you find this useful.

      It's all stuff we know. Writing it out helps me get it straight in my head, too.

  5. One thing I used to struggle with was the entire business of "the problem" - sure, there were things my characters aspired to, but they didn't necessarily have problems, because they made sensible choices and didn't get into trouble unless it came looking for them. But I'm learning to listen to them more with each story/draft, and finding they're not always sensible after all...

    1. I see my stories as quests or problems-to-be-solved, I guess. My protagonists want something very much. They generally also need something they don't realize they need.

      And I like to torture my people. I make life real hard for them.
      On purpose, y'know.

      I go -- "Okay. She's suffering because of (a), (b), and (c). Now ... What else bad can happen to her?"

  6. Torture, yes! This is how I have to start thinking...

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