QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Querying your unlikeable character

The common advice for query-writing is to have character, crisis and conflict. All well and good, but what if your main character is a jerk?

Worse, what if your main character is unappealing on gut-level?

Literature is full of unappealing characters, but I'm not talking about main characters some readers personally can't stand. I'm talking about the ones whom human beings in general categorically don't like, such as rapists. Murderers. You get my drift. Sure, once we start reading the book we may like these characters -- may like them a lot -- but in terms of a query, you don't get very much space to introduce these questionable people. Yet with edgy fiction, you may have a character on the fringes of what most people will tolerate.

In about 250 words, you need to convince an agent or editor to read about someone she probably would step out of an elevator to avoid.

So, how to introduce (and make someone root for) a bully, a demon, a kidnapper, a racist...? Or in the case of my first novel, someone who murdered a child? I think you do it by adding more to the package.

The very first thing I would suggest is working out for yourself exactly why you love this character. After all, you must have loved this character a lot in order to spend hundreds of hours writing and editing him (or her). Why do you find him appealing? (If it's just, "Well, assassins are cool!" then you're going to need to skip this step. If it's "Well, I wanted to raise everyone's consciousness that human traffickers are evil," then you might want to rethink the whole book.)

Maybe it's the character's intelligence. Maybe he was abused as a child and wanted to break out of the cycle but couldn't figure out how. Present those characteristics. Let us know the character is multidimensional.

Maybe it's how he justifies himself to himself. Show us the labyrinthine thought that allows this person to think well of himself despite what he's doing. 

Second: is he at rock bottom? Right now? Give it to us, raw and bloody, there in the first paragraph of the query, everything this person has already lost by being this unappealing. He's in jail awaiting the guillotine after assassinating the crown prince. Or maybe his wife went into hiding with their kids when she discovered the horrible thing he'd done last week.

Third: the voice. It might be that this character is as outrageously funny as he is outrageously appealing. If that's the case, pull out all the stops to showcase that character's voice in your query. If the character's just so gripping to listen to, we'll be willing to listen to some unsavory stuff.

Fourth: humor. According to Blake Snyder in Save The Cat, the movie Natural Born Killers works because the two guys are so funny that you want to keep listening to them. It's an extension of voice, but if your main character is funny, try to showcase that in the query. 

Fifth: the character's dreams -- and what stands in his way. If the character aspires to something other than what he is now, let us know. Maybe he wishes he could quit pimping and go to college, but first he needs to learn to read.

What not to include? Why the main character had no choice about what he is. Most of us have been in awful situations without becoming murderers or kidnappers, and therefore no matter what the circumstances, we're not going to find it convincing that this person had no other choice. It will just make the character sound weak and the plot contrived. But if the character chose this way of life, then we can believe that by the end of the book, the character can choose something better.

Obviously it's easier to make someone care about an orphan tween being raised by his cruel aunt and uncle, but querying an unappealing character is as possible as it is to write about one.


Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Eric Steinberg said...

Great post! I'm in the process of writing a YA Sci Fi with, at least initially, a largely unlikeable character.

I'm been working on my query letter in advance and this post is very timely. Thanks!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Wonderful post! I've always heard that main characters should be likable or fascinating, so perhaps the why of fascination is the hook here?

Susan Elizabeth said...

I'm interested to see how Tom Ripley was described in Patricia Highsmith's first successful query. Or how did Brett Easton Ellis sell Patrick Bateman?

Unknown said...

I don't think likeability of the character depends on what he does, but on his character. He could be a heart surgeon saving the lives of little children, but if he's an arogant, selfish bustard, the reader is much more likely to enjoy reading about a charming, funny psychopath.

Jane Lebak said...

Daina, that kind of thing will unfold over the course of the novel. But in a query, if you're introducing "Jack Smith, a doctor," you've got a lower hurdle than if you're introducing "Jack Smith, a terrorist."

And while it would be relatively easy to say "Dr. Jack Smith is an arrogant twit," it's not going to be so easy to say "Terrorist Jack Smith has a heart of gold."

It's a real estate problem. There's not much space in a query to show the character.

chihuahuazero said...

Hmm...I'm having troubles deciding if my protagonist is sympathetic enough from the beginning, so this might be of some use.

Unknown said...

Interesting post. I've never had an evil main character (on purpose) and have heard criticism when I showed my characters in a less-than-nice-guy light. It's tough. Or I'm not a good enough writer to pull it off. No. I'm pretty sure it's tough.