Monday, January 27, 2014

Question: Nameless in Nantucket

First person queries—I know it's a gimmick. I know you say not to (I-the-writer, not I-the-character and the confusion between). I have been all through your blog looking for an answer and only found two instances of first person intrigue, one wins, one failed. Neither helped my specific needs:

My main character doesn't have a name. How am I expected to write a winning query while simultaneously enticing the prospective agent if I can't even state more than "he"?

The basic premise of my novel is that I (the writer) have to write these words to escape my curse. Telling "my" tale in the hopes of making the supernatural activity stop, etc etc filler and adjectives...

I am seriously at a loss. I feel (as does every person who writes a manuscript, no?) that I have a sound novel. I could be wrong and maybe the problem is with my story, but I am almost positive it is not.

Any help and/or advice on this particular 1st person instance?

Interesting question.

The best way to figure out how to do it is to see what other people did.

Spenser has no first name (the novels by Robert B. Parker) but that doesn't help since people do call him Spenser. (Even his main squeeze, the dreadful Susan Silverman)

Bill Pronzini writes the Nameless detective novels, and the character is referred to as Nameless.

And the one that might surprise you: Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.  The narrator is never named. She's called Mrs. deWinter but you never know her first name, or what her maiden name was.

And in fact the real Mrs. deWinter is the titular Rebecca. So let's see what the flap copy says here:

After their honeymoon, wealthy Max deWinter and his bride return to his country estate in Cornwall. But the unsettling presence of Rebecca, the deceased first Mrs. deWinter, lingers in the mansion and in reminders from the strange housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

Not really much help is it?

So, I think you're left with "the nameless first person narrator" as a starting point. If that feels awkward, give him/her a name. And then never use it in the book. This will make a great trivia point when you're rich and famous.


Jane Lebak said...

The protagonist of A. Lee Martinez's "A Nameless Witch" is also nameless (no, really!) and the back cover copy reads: "Being born undead can have its disadvantages, such as eternal youth and flawless beauty -- things unsuitable for a witch. Hiding behind the guise of a grimy old crone, the witch is content living outside Fort Stalwart…" and then proceeds to call the protagonist "the witch" for the rest of the back cover.

Rather than invent a name, I'd vote for "the protagonist" for the substance of the query. "Cursed to tell his story, the protagonist tells about his quest to find the perfect Egg McMuffin and the universe's horrible fate should he succeed."

Colin Smith said...

As you say, queries are nine-times-out-of-ten written in the 3rd person, even if the novel's in the first. Treat your novel no differently. Query in the third person, and refer to the main character as "a writer" or "The Writer." If the voice and the premise are enticing enough, you should be okay.

If that doesn't help, try writing your query with a dummy name for your MC. Once you've nailed your query, play around with the MC's name: remove it, change it for "The Writer" or "an author," or even experiment with making the query first person.

Whatever you do, be sure to read your query aloud, and bounce it off other people before you send it out.

I hope that's helpful to you.

Josin L. McQuein said...

See if you can locate anything about a query for Elizabeth Kostova's THE HISTORIAN. The main character in that one is never named beyond "the girl."

Also, check out the back blurb, which begins: Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’.

No names, just designations.

Anonymous said...

The main character in Sounder never has a name either. He's just "the boy". Very literary.

I like Ms. Reid's suggestion in her last line there.

Janet Reid said...

These are terrific suggestions! Thanks to all of you for the help!

JT Pledger said...

Hi, hi and thank you for the advice. I will experiment around with using a stand-in name. The main problem I am having seems to only be with the query letter. Synopsis is fine; I can tell the story. I can write the story; the story itself is great. Unlike some of the examples mentioned here though, I don't even name the MC in the book "he" or "the boy", etc (obviously, the book is in 1st person).

My novel is set as true and real and I am basically telling you what has happened to me over the years. It's like a memoir only... not. So I fall into the I-the-writer IS I-the-character. I will play around with the suggestions here and see what I come up with.

Nothing like taking the hardest part of writing and making it even harder, eh? I seem to be good at that.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Rebecca is my go-to nameless narrator example. It is, I think, my favorite book. Other than Fight Club, where the narrator is ostensibly also never named.

Sometimes in the telling of a story, the narrator's name doesn't matter and the reader may not even come to the realization.

smoketree said...

The narrator of Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" isn't named either, since it's heavily implied that the narrator is Gaiman himself. In the dust jacket copy, they get around this by referring to him as "a middle-aged man" (for the framing narrative) and "a young boy" (for the central narrative).

Then again, if you want to preserve the illusion that the book is a true account, you could try using your own first name for the character.

Craig F said...

Maybe you could focus on the curse itself. Making the last line tell that this is the story of how the narrator became the Cursed One could keep the interest up. The only hard part will be keeping it from becoming an info dump.

Wintercom said...

I'm not really sure whether you could use style to get around this issue. i.e. how hard is it to write 200 words about actual STORY without mentioning who the story is happening to.

Some authors are driven by inspiration. Some are driven by greed. This one, though, is trapped. Cursed. Driven to divulge their forbidden past and lay the truth out on these pages, in hopes that curse that has haunted them will end before it is too late.

Okay, bad example, generalizations, I don't know what the heck this story is about ;) you get the point, though. Perhaps you have spent so much time in your character's shoes that it is the only way you can tell their story? Maybe some outside feedback from a writer buddy who's read your work may help. Her Sharkness Janet's suggestion is interesting - using VOICE however can probably get you out of this pickle entirely.

Joseph S. said...

My immediate response was to use Tale Spinner, Our Hero, The Cursed Soul or something like that, but I like many of the suggestions made already.

P.S. This is my second attempt to post this. I hope I didn't post twice.

Lance said...

Thank you. This is a very useful post, and the comments have added to it.

The Sleepy One said...

Check out back cover copy of The Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes. The narrator isn't named until almost the very end of the story.

When I read Hotel Paradise, I didn't even realize I didn't know the narrator's name until I read it, unlike in Rebecca, where I was aware it was purposefully omitted.

JT Pledger said...

In doing more research for my question here, I stumbled across this page naming the "top 10" nameless protagonists in literature (including Rebecca and Graham Greene). Since I have now written my synopsis, it is also helping me form my query letter. Still difficult, but I finally think I am on to something. Thank you Ms. Reid, and the followers here for your continued help and comments. I will press on!

Bo said...

I was struggling with this problem too. All that is revealed about my protagonist's name is that it isn't Kevin. So glad I went back through the older posts.