General Writing

Making Character Lists More Interesting

Fantasy novels tend to have a lot of characters. The Bone Ransom, the novel I am currently querying, has thirty-two, if you count off-stage and historical figures with names, although that number plunges to twenty if I only include those who actually appear. That’s far from the largest cast I’ve come across, but big enough that a list of characters seems to be called for. But character lists are boring to raead, even if useful as an occasional reference. How, I wondered, could they be made more interesting?

I found my answer in Lindsey Davis’ mystery novels set in ancient Rome. Davis plays it safe, titling her lists “Principal Characters” – a wise precaution, since unless you keep track as you write, it’s easy to miss a few. More to the point, her list is not just a dry description of each character, but often includes wry comments. Often, these comments can only be fully appreciated after you have finished the book. For example, her list in Two for the Lions, the first of her books I found on the shelves, includes “Maia: Falco’s younger sister, looking for her chance,” followed by “Famia: Maia’s husband, looking for a drink.” The same list includes “Pompius Urtica: a praetor who never did anything illegal” and “Iddibal: a far from beastly bestiarius.” With entries like these, Davis’ Principle Characters are always fun to read just for themselves.

In the same spirit, my list now contains entries like “Talson: a teenage boy corrupted by stories” and “Skulae: Talson’s sister. Nothing is her fault.” Other entries I am fond of include “Aglachad Torhte: Second Cousin to the Ravenpipers and not important enough” and (for a member of the undead) “Leel: A housecarl who has let herself go.” Whether readers will appreciate these remarks remains to be seen, but they definitely made compiling the list more enjoyable for me.


My First Lessons From Querying

Your first queries, I’ve been told, are for practice. Your first choices of an agent or publishers should wait until you’ve made mistakes and learned from them. Usually, I’m skeptical about conventional wisdom, but I followed this advice, and I’m glad I did. After half a dozen queries, I have not received any personal rejections I could learn from, but I have learned a lesson or two about querying, and found reason to revise the start of my novel.

The first lesson should have been obvious: the smaller the sample of the manuscript requested, the quicker the response. This tendency matters, because for all everyone knows about the importance of a hook, a small sample and quick response may mean that a submission was not taken seriously. I worry that, rather than looking for quality or a story that will seller, agents with such criteria are most interesting in clearing their desks. So, unless someone proves otherwise, such agents will go to the bottom of my preferences.

My second lesson is more of a suspicion. My manuscript contains snippets of four to twelve lines of poetry. I believe that those snippets are a useful way to convey backstory and atmosphere. However, when I stop to think, mentioning poetry in my query might cause agents to believe I was offering an overly literary manuscript. What agents want, of course, is a saleable manuscript, and seventy years after Tolkien, many readers shy away from poetry. Because of this likelihood, I revised my query letter to omit any mention of poetry. Let the agents actually encounter my scattered bits of poetry, and I believe they will find that it works. At the very least, my manuscript will not risk being rejected out of a blind preference or prejudice.

However, it was when I looked at my novel from the perspective of trying to sell it that my first queries helped me the most. The story begins with a pivotal event in the past, and how it effects the protagonist, his mother, and his sister. I have always worried about the prologue, mainly because it starts with the mother, which might make readers think she is the main character. But I kept it because a professional writer who was a trusted friend suggested I keep it. But it was only when I started to query that I decided to change it. The prologue wasn’t the best sample I could offer, and meant less of the much stronger opening chapters could be included. At first, I wondered if there was a way to start with the main character, but, I was unable to find a way to give the necessary backstory.

Then a revelation struck: why mention his mother and sister at all in the prologue? Both are introduced later, so their inclusion in the prologue is unnecessary. I re-wrote the prologue entirely from the main character’s perspective, and the result is a much stronger story, and one which shows my writing to greater perspective, since I use the limited understanding of a child to reveal things of which he is not wholly aware. And, as an added bonus, I cut two thousand words. As a result, I believe that the manuscript now presents me much more strongly.

These improvements are largely assumption, but they show how querying can focus your mind and give you a new perspective on your own work. I look forward to further insights, both into querying and my writing as I plunge back into the maelstrom of submission.