Jun 22 2009

How to Interest Publishers In Your Characters: Avoid Irrelevant Details

Published by at 12:56 am under Character Development,Writing Articles

When you’re making a pitch to publishers (or explaining your story to prospective readers), I’d strongly recommend focusing on crucial details like major personality traits, unusual decisions, major goals/motivations, and anything else which has a major effect on the plot. In contrast, these demographic details tend to be irrelevant and forgettable: 

  • Hair color
  • Eye color
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Age, unless perhaps it creates an important contrast with other characters or is critical to understanding the plot. For example, if I were doing a synopsis of Scott Pilgrim, I’d probably mention that the main character is a 23 year old trying to get over a crushing breakup by dating a high school student.
  • What the character wears, unless it does an exceptional job of developing the character and/or establishing interesting personality traits. Note: Being rich or poor is neither a personality trait nor inherently interesting.
  • Nationalities. Okay, this could be useful, particularly to point out an unexpected setting, but generally I wouldn’t recommend mentioning this unless it’s hard to understand the plot without knowing who’s Canadian and who’s Russian.  (Rule of thumb: If you’re listing nationalities mainly so that we know how diverse your cast is, it probably doesn’t matter).
  • Birthplace–unless, say, we need to know that a character is from another town, country or planet.
  • Educational background–unless it is relevant to the plot and/or suggests an important trait or skill.  (For non-students, the character’s job usually covers this better, however).
  • Blood type, horoscopes, or birthday (Japanese publishers may care; Western ones definitely do not).

 

However, some demographic information could be relevant because it affects the book’s audience appeal and how the book will be marketed.

  • Race–if the protagonist’s race is critical to understanding the plot and/or audience appeal.
  • Gender–usually relevant (on at least the grounds of audience appeal) but usually it’s unnecessary to explicitly tell us who’s a lady and who’s a guy. You can cover that with gendered pronouns (e.g. he vs. she).
  • Anything else that is particularly important to the plot.  Some examples may include jobs, species (for nonhuman characters), major illnesses, mental disorders, etc.
  • Anything that affects major character decisions or goals.  For example, if the character’s main goal is to get over some past trauma, it would probably be worthwhile to briefly discuss the trauma.

 

Obviously, these are just guidelines.  If the character’s height or weight or eye color are particularly important to the plot and/or provide a major obstacle, then mention them. However, in most cases, they are not.

 

 

Many beginning authors start out by doing lists of their characters’ demographic traits.  If that information is for your eyes only, I don’t think it’s an issue.  However, when you’re presenting your book to professionals, I would recommend a smoother approach that spends less time on extraneous details and more time on why your characters matter to the plot.   A particular detail might be relevant for some characters but not all characters.  For example, if one of your characters is an alien or elf, it’d probably be worthwhile to mention that (assuming it’s plot-relevant), but you probably don’t need to explicitly tell us which characters are humans because we can infer/assume that on our own.

 

 

Good luck!

12 responses so far

12 Responses to “How to Interest Publishers In Your Characters: Avoid Irrelevant Details”

  1. Marissaon 22 Jun 2009 at 1:38 am

    Yeah, I don’t even know the height and weight of my characters, aside from the abnormally tall one’s height. I just know their general build.

  2. B. Macon 22 Jun 2009 at 2:39 am

    Comic book tangent! In a comic book, it’s helpful if the artist knows how tall everyone is. But the publisher doesn’t care.

  3. Davidon 22 Jun 2009 at 5:22 am

    Some readers tend to ask themselves these questions, though, like hair and eye color.

    The book Animorphs describes all of the characters at the beginning of every single book.

  4. Marissaon 22 Jun 2009 at 5:36 am

    Hey, that reminds me. B. Mac, I think authors need to know how to keep readers up to speed at the start of a sequel or third book without infodumping. Care to write an article on that?

    For what I’m referring to, see David’s Animorphs example, or Maximum Ride. MR says (in Max’s voice) that if the reader is up to date, to just skip the next chapter, but there has to be a more effective way than that?

  5. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 22 Jun 2009 at 6:12 am

    I generally describe my characters over a wide area of chapters. For example, in one chapter I may say that “Isaac’s brown hair was slicked against his face by sweat”, and fifteen chapters later I may say something like “his blue eyes watered as he tried to rub the sand out of them”, and another five later I’d put something like “he pulled his jacket tighter around his thin frame”. I try to steer away from paragraphs that accomplish little more than a physical description, but I am often tempted to do that when introducing new characters.

    I use character profile sheets to record the details, but that’s just to make sure that any small bits of description I use in-story are consistent.

  6. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 22 Jun 2009 at 6:14 am

    Marissa:

    My plan is not to do any infodumping, but to simply reintroduce the characters and setting as I have already. As no one will have read the first book when it’s published, they won’t know the characters, and neither will new readers if they pick up the second first. I’ll just use a similar formula as I have for the first book to reintroduce them in the second.

  7. Marissaon 22 Jun 2009 at 7:02 am

    I’ve got a similar plan, but there’s a fine line where ‘reintroducing’ becomes ‘telling the readers who read the first book like they were supposed to enough background info to bore them and deter them’. Make sense?

  8. B. Macon 22 Jun 2009 at 10:18 am

    Hmm. I’m not sure that I could come up with 500 words worth of material on how to reintroduce the characters at the start of a sequel. But I could probably do a more general article on something like doing sequels in general.

    Some initial thoughts…

    –Returning readers will forgive a bit of retreading. However, please do not retread the story by having the narrator point out each character and tell us what we’re supposed to remember about them. Generally, I suspect it would be more effective to introduce the book with a scene where the characters remind us of who they are in dialogue or action. Probably dialogue, because it often requires less setup.

    –Briefly, briefly recap what happened in the last book. Focus on what we need to know to understand what’s going on here. If your series is like the James Bond series, with little connection between one book and the next, then you might be able to get away with ignoring the last book entirely. In general, I suspect that most series can explain away the last book in 1-3 pages. Ironically, the more time you spend discussing the last book, the more likely you are to confuse incoming readers. Stay away from details as much as possible and focus on characters more than plot events.

    –As much as possible, try to avoid referring back to the events of the last book that don’t affect this one. Incoming readers don’t know what the Death Star is, and as far as understanding the second movie is concerned, knowing what the Death Star is doesn’t really matter.

    –Use a glossary for jargon and/or subtly reintroduce readers to the jargon in-story. For example, if I were doing a sequel to a Superhero Nation novel, I’d have to define words and terms like OSI pretty quickly.

  9. Bretton 22 Jun 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Im with RW on the details thing. I try to avoid infodumping like the plague now. I recently realized that my first chapter contains something of an infodump in the beginning, where I describe Alex. Although this information serves a purpose (differentiating Alex from “normal” people), the purpose that it serves can be done more efficiently through action and those little details (which I still do want people to know) can be more powerful and effective when they’re spread out more and introduced along with a relevant action. By telling you Alex’s eyes are red, I get across that he has…red eyes. Bid deal. By telling you that the cabbage merchant could not meet the glare of Alex’s burning crimson eyes, I get across that he has red eyes AND that he’s intimidating. 😀

    I will post the redone chapter one for comparison in a matter of minutes.

  10. Gurion Omegaon 23 Jun 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Yeah, unless something like their weight plays an essential role in the themes and concepts, its not necessary!

  11. B. Macon 23 Jun 2009 at 11:44 pm

    “Some readers tend to ask themselves these questions, though, like hair and eye color.”

    You might be able to come up with situations where that information is interesting to readers and somehow advances the plot. However, as I noted above (in the title and first sentence of this post), I was talking about what sort of information publishers care about, not readers. Generally, publishers want to know information that is either extremely important to the plot or will help them decide if the book is worth publishing. Hair/eye color is almost never that important. Unless it ties into the premise, as with The Girl with the Silver Eyes, you should probably leave it out.

  12. Davidon 24 Jun 2009 at 1:12 am

    i shall find a few anamorphs books and see k lol

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