Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Pitching Multiple Characters

After my pitch critiques I received a number of questions about how readers should pitch books with multiple characters. Should you write one paragraph for each character or simply focus on one or two?

I think the important thing to know when pitching is that a pitch is not necessarily about your characters, a pitch is about what makes your book come alive, what’s the conflict and what brings these characters together. I’m not sure I’ve read any book that’s strictly about three or four different characters with no connection between them, therefore your pitch is probably about the connection and not the characters themselves.

For example, if I were writing a book about four different women and their failing marriages, my book is not about each individual woman, but about how four women each come together to cope with the failure of their marriage—even if the women never really come together in the book, but live side by side, so to speak. Obviously, having a book might help me write a stronger pitch, but I think you get the idea.

The best piece of advice for a question like this actually comes from my readers. If you’ve written a book with multiple protagonists, how do you pitch it? And would anyone be brave enough to share their pitch as well as a bit of backstory to give readers a visual of what you’ve done?



Mark Terry said...

Actually, I'm thinking about the synopsis I sent you for the contest win for The Zombie Zoo, and how I pitched it as being about the squad and you came back to note (among other things) that you couldn't figure out who the main character was.

My take-away is that even if you have an "ensemble" cast, you probably need to have a main character, or if you're writing romance, two main characters.

If you think about Ed McBain's many, many 87th Precinct novels, Steve Carella is almost always the main character, even if the book is about some other characters.

Kimber Li said...

Absolutely, the characters cannot be out there dangling by themselves. Multiple protagonists have a common goal which binds them together, and there's got to be an antagonist who opposes that goal. Without that plot, you've got nothing.

Here's one of mine which has received a significant amount of attention-

Captain Olivia O'Keefe accepted the destruction of her marriage to Captain Edward Delano to avoid war. She never imagined their secret baby girl would grow up to wreak havoc on the galaxy trying to reconcile them. A Menelaen prince gets a telepathic lock on Junior and saving her soul could start a new war. Only the sacrifice of a greater love can resurrect this family, but who will make it?

This was the first pitch I ever developed and I whittled away on it for over a year. Developing the second took only a couple of weeks in my spare time. My advice is to take the time to work very hard on the first one, because that is how you learn. I've just started working on my third.

There are tons of resources out there. Search the archives of long-running agents' blogs and you'll find all the help you need. Pub Rants was particularly helpful.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly my current quandry. I have a novel with 4 main characters. Sorry. I do believe I pulled it off. Their stories revolve around a central setting and they do interact and they do have parallels. Each plays off the other's strengths and weaknesses. Each has their own conflicts. So how does a writer do that on a single page query and not get bounced by the assistant who is reading the query letter and has been told to conform to certain standards or put in the reject pile?

I plan to start sending queries really soon and I'm thinking the best approach is to just show one of their points of view. I'm trying to use the character whose story sounds the most compelling. Unfortunately, the novel opens with a different character. I'm convinced that is the right place to start.

So if I include pages or if the agent asks for a partial, I'm pretty sure it will give the agent pause.

Keri Ford said...

Anon 8:48:

If the writing is fantastic and it hooks them on the first sentence (as I'm sure it does!), then there attention won't be on the query letter, I wouldn't think. JMO.

But either way, many books, like suspense, start out in the POV of a girl who is killed by the end of that first chapter. Also, many times, the books start out in the bad guy's POV.

just something to think about. That said, you might want to hop over to Kristin Nelson. She's been doing one of her workshops on her blog. Her thoughts are a book's blurb should about the first 30 or so pages, as that is what hooks you into the story.

Heidi the Hick said...

I ended up doing the opposite. I narrowed it down to one character and her dilemmas. Obviously the other characters impact her story but the query was waaaay too messy. I think it's better this way.

I brought the other characters into the synopsis.

Kimber Li said...

anon 8:48 - Don't send off those queries until you're darned good and ready!

The question I asked myself was-

Which protagonist starts the conflict?

In the example I gave, it was Olivia. She very naturally and innocently wanted her own baby. That desire led her to take a chance on marrying fellow Star Captain Delano, which set off...et cetera. And so I started the Pitch with her. I was also careful to begin and end the novel in her Point of View only.

I've found writing the Pitch to be enormously helpful in focusing my thoughts when putting the Final Polish on the novel itself.

Anonymous said...

I've been dealing with exactly this problem, but can't say I have a solution. The secondary characters in my story are a large part of what makes it unique, but if I try to work them into the pitch it gets too long and too messy. This is one reason I find the whole pitch process so frustrating. I think it works much better for genre books, which rely on a really snappy and engaging plot line, than for more literary books like mine, which rely more on character, atmosphere, and quality of writing.

bob said...

Kimber An, great point about using the pitch to help focus and give the manuscript the final polish. I've used the pitch and entire query letter to help nail down areas of even a new manuscript when I find it hard to focus on the lay out of what's to come.

A suggestion to is to look at other books that have a large cast or several main lead characters and see how the back or inside blurbs read.

It can give you great examples of how you might want to deal with the query letter. The blurbs give you a taste and thats what you want in the letter.

And seeing as many agents stipulate a 1 page query letter, the tighter the better! (It will also help you write a tighter synopsis to.

Anonymous said...

Lorna Landvik's Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons comes to mind when I think of books with ensemble casts. Possibly reading the blurb on Amazon about her book might help those with a pitch problem as such.

Edie Ramer said...

The book I recently finished is a women's fiction about 4 friends. I start with what brought them together and give a plot point that runs through the book and is another connection. After that, I write a sentence on each character, mentioning their goal and conflict. I think it works.

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
astrologymemphis.blogspot.com said...

I love this post! I have been struggling with this very thing for soooooo long now.

While my novel is a love story focused mostly on two people, they are part of a close group of friends (think St. Elmo's Fire, or The Big Chill, or Almost Famous), but the group is not secondary to the plot; they are a very big and important part of it. The first part of the novel shows the group together before a tragedy tears them apart, and the latter part of the novel shows the growth and change of each of them twenty-five years later. It's been so hard to write a hook that conveys that it's both a romantic love story and story of love between friends. I'm not really satisfied with the way I've done it so far, but the past few days I've been simmering a new idea on the back burner. We'll see ...

Anyway, the hook as it is now, reads:

Callie Monroe is alone in the world. More than anything, she wants a home of her own, and to feel she belongs somewhere. When the patrons of a neighborhood bar called Centerfolds take her in, she finds friendship and true love. But when a tragedy in her absence tears them apart, Callie ends up wandering through life alone again. Twenty-five years later, when she returns home to care for the mother who had forsaken her, Callie tries to piece together the tragedy that left her brokenhearted, and reunite the friends who were her true family. But the friends resist being found, and the stunning discovery Callie makes in the effort turns her life upside down, threatens her marriage, and promises to destroy her all over again.

JDuncan said...

This is a tough one in my opinion. I've struggled with the notion as well, where I had two main characters that I switched back and forth between throughout the story, and even had a few chapters with a couple of the significant minor characters. These were all first person pov's too. Lol. Ok, in retrospect perhaps a mistake. I liked all of these characters and wanted them to have their voice heard, if even in a small role. A year and a half later, and numerous rejections later, I finally decided that I liked the story enough to rewrite the thing in third person, with only the two main pov's involved. When writing a query for it, I found that every time I attempted to detail more than one character, the query ended up being too long, so I turned more to focusing on the plot elements and just hinting at the major character issues that help drive the story. I wish I had a good answer for this one. I don't. It's hard, that's all there is to it. At one point, I actually trimmed the whole story down to one sentence:

Guilt-ridden vampire teams up with an emotionally damaged FBI agent and chases a serial killer into the afterlife to stop him.

This ignores so much of the interesting bits in my story that I think makes it appealing, but it captures the barest essence of the story, leaving enough ambiguous questions like what sort of killer can cross to the other side, and is there a relationship between this vampire and the agent, and so forth.

Anyway. Good luck for all of you who are trying to query with multiple chars.