Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Query Question: introducing characters

I've seen a lot of queries where the writer starts off with the main character's full name. "Dr. Felixandro Buttonweezer III was just your average shark researcher until..." Then they're called by nickname for the rest of the query. "Felix must battle through Character Soup and Plot Salad before he's free." I can understand people doing this if the character's title or family name is important, but I see it all the time. Is there some grand unwritten rule about this? Should we just start off with Felix if we're going to call him that anyway? Or is it one of those "whatever works for the rhythm and tone" problems? 

I've seen this a lot too, and it doesn't stand out as something I'd suggest be changed.  Thus it's one of those "whatever works for the rhythm and tone" items.

However, there are a couple things writers do when introducing characters that do drive me batshark crazy:

(1) Dr. Felixandro "Felix" Buttonweezer III

If you're going to call him  Felix, do it. If you're going to use his full name, do that. But do NOT combine them.  That's newspaper style writing, and you're not writing an article for the SharkVille Times. You're writing a letter.

(2) Dr. Felixandro Buttonweezer III, 34, was just your average shark researcher

Again, adding Felix's age after his name is like newspaper writing. If his age is important, tell us when it's important.  Dr. Felix Buttonweezer was only 34 when Mrs. Buttonweezer started planning for his retirement.

In one place it's part of the story, in another it's just an isolated fact with no context.  You do NOT want isolated facts with no context in a query. Every piece of information should be part of the narrative. It should be there for a reason.

(3) Felix and Felicia were twins. The Buttonweezer clan thought twins were bad luck.

In a query, which is very short form, and often skimmed,  you want to make rock solid certain that your reader isn't confused. Here, there is confusion because we don't know if Felix and Felicia are part of the Buttonweezer clan.

This is how you fix that: Felix and Felicia Buttonweezer were twins, something the Buttonweezer clan thought was bad luck.  Even though you use the Buttonweezer name twice in a sentence, it's CLEAR. Clarity is the goal.


french sojourn said...


Another very helpful post.


P.S. my sister (recently married) Felicia Navidad sends her warmest regards.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Felixandro has a twin sister and he's a marine biologist. Wow.

Janet, in Italian there is a saying "attaca bottoni" which means someone who literally attaches (all) their buttons to yours. A very sticky person.

Thanks to whoever asked this question and of course to the Shark. The advice strikes the bull's-eye concerning my query.

Unknown said...

I saw an interview with literary agents and in a Q&A they were asked "Do you really read every query you get?" Of course the answer was yes. The host, with a very sharp intuition, asked, "Okay, so how MUCH of a query do you read?" Answers of course depended on the quality, but one of the agents said, "Sometimes, four seconds."

This highlights Ms. Shark's point. A question that popped in my mind was, "Could this be a reason that some agents think it's too fast paced, since they frequently skim queries?" Then my brain answered, "That's why a query isn't a summary." For some reason, that seemed to satisfy me greatly.

If you really want to see what makes a successful query, Writer's Digest has a section called "Successful Queries". Also, I find their "How I Got My Agent" to be very useful.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ah ha! Newspaper writing, something I know about, sort of.
SharkVille Times, a newspaper with a paramount of writers, could you use another paramount?

I am Elizabeth, age 36, “Betty with 2 Ts” Buttonweazer, wife of Dr. Felixandro "Felix" Buttonweezer III, mother to the entire Buttonweezer clan; there’s a passel of them.

How’s that for newspaper writing? May I apply for any positions you may have open, excluding yoga? I don’t do yoga positions.
I type real fast, have spell check and I have no problem getting rid of my little darlings. I already got rid of one, his name was Bud, the middle child. He lives with his ‘real’ father in Brazil.

If you are interested I can send you some tear-sheets of my latest work from my former newspaper, Scotts. It’s cheap and comes 1000 sheets on a roll.

Anonymous said...

I put first and last name of the mc in the query for what reason I don't know. It just seemed right.

I've seen a lot of advice about mentioning the mc's age if they are younger. I had split advice on putting my mc's age in. She's sixteen. Some people thought this was important. I opted against it because people automatically assumed it was a YA, which it isn't. It's very much an epic fantasy even though the mc is younger. Joan of Arc was about that age, so it's not impossible for a young woman to do great things.

I can see adding the age if it's a component of the story. 80-year-old Dolores Daring is a retired spy great adventure.

Colin Smith said...

I have absolutely nothing to add to Janet's response, or the comments. So here's a long flash story (it's 470 words, not 100--I'm feeling verbose!) on the theme of character names:

"What is your name?" Danny said, banging his fist on the table.

The man on the other side just smiled. Though shackled at the wrists and ankles and wearing the demeanor of a captured animal, the man with stringy hair and beard looked commanding.

"Why? Why won't you tell me your name?"

The man peered through half-open eyes, weighing the detective.

"Because, Detective DiMarcello, you don't want to know."

"Of course I—"

"You don't want to know." The man didn't shout. His voice slid underneath Danny's and pulled the momentum out of it.

Danny circled the room, watching the man, looking for the slightest tick, or sign of discomfort to exploit. But the man simply stared back, following Danny with empty brown eyes.

"I can order DNA tests, we can look up fingerprints—we have the means of finding out who you are. So why don't you just tell me?"

"Then order your tests. But you don't want to know. And I don't want to be the one to tell you."

Danny rubbed his forehead.

"I don't understand. You just confessed to a triple murder. You described in intimate detail how you used a long serrated-edged knife to slice each victim's throat and mutilate their bodies. You gave us exact locations for the bodies. You even told us where to find the weapon! So why are you withholding your name?"


"Fine. Fine. We have enough to send you to trial. We can call you John Doe, Felix Buttonweazer, whatever. I've already ordered the tests. By the time this comes to trial, I'm sure we'll have a name."

Danny motioned to the officer at the door. He took the man by the arm and led him away. Danny slumped into his chair and rubbed his eyes, trying to erase that murderous glare from his mind. He was interrupted by a knock at the door.

"Sir?" A young man stood in the doorway holding a manila folder. "Sir—I have the information you asked for."

Danny looked up. "You found him?"

"Yes sir." The young man tried a smile, but his mouth twitched.

"Something wrong?"

"Just—um—see for yourself, sir." He handed Danny the folder. Danny hesitated. The man's voice echoed in his head: "You don't want to know."

Yes I do, Danny said to himself.

He pulled open the folder.

There were a number of documents inside, but the one on top caught his attention.

A birth certificate.

Danny read it, his heart pounding.

"Is this some kind of joke?"

"N-No, sir," the young man said.

"It says his date of birth was—he's only three years old!"

"I know sir. But along with the DNA and fingerprints—there's no doubt."

Danny stared at the name on the certificate.

Marcus Daniel DiMarcello.

Parents, Daniel and Sonya DiMarcello.

Anonymous said...

@Colin - nicely done fantasy ff! You kept me reading b/c of the hook "you don't want to know." Seems the young man has Benjamin Button's age reversal "disease."

There's obviously something about a name with Button in it that brings out the creativity of this crowd.

As to the question of the day, I'll just keep my lip buttoned since I certainly can't offer any better advice about character intro's in a query than The Shark.

Dena Pawling said...

My query includes my MC's full name, Lisa Menlo, in the middle of the very first sentence, as a method of introducing her, and also because it does seem to flow better that way. I just call her Lisa in the rest of the query.

Her age, 28, is mentioned in the middle of the first sentence of the second paragraph, because her age is a MAJOR part of the plot. Without knowing her age, most of the plot wouldn't make sense.

If Mrs. Buttonweezer was planning Felix's retirement when he was only 34, it sounds like she's tired of him being away from home. So either she's resentful of him being away all the time, and/or looking forward to being with him more often. Actually sounds rather romantic :)

Karen McCoy said...

Echoing what Julie said, I've heard it's important to include age if it's YA, but Julie's evidence shows why age shouldn't be included if it's not.

YA is split into various age groups (older, gritty YA versus younger YA), and audience can be determined based on the protagonist's age. I've tried solving this problem by saying, "16-year-old so and so" but it feels clunky on the query level.

Mister Furkles said...


Isn't it supposed to go:

Dr. Felix Buttonweezer was only 34 when Mrs. Buttonweezer began planning his retirement at Black Weapons Armory.

Which must be what you meant but with greater specificity.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm a little jaded, but Dena's remark about Mrs. Buttonweezer (Buttonweazer?) was so different than my way of thinking, I had to comment again. For me, Mrs. B planning Mr's B's retirement sounded more like she's about to "off" him, in order to get his retirement. IDK. Maybe my last WIP and current are causing an unrealistic level of darker thinking.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: Thanks! Of course, as soon as I post my comment I start thinking of the rest of the story, which could make a good short story, or novel IF I hadn't gone and published that snippet here. Oh well. Consider it my gift to my blog friends. :)

And I think Buttonweezer is the correct spelling. I misspelled it.

french sojourn said...


"Bud's real father in Brazil ?"

When you next go to Brazil to visit the little shaver, why don't you ask Senior Bud's Dad to take you trollop hunting?

Not so fondly,


REJourneys said...

Carolynnwith2Ns your resume is priceless. Sorry, I mean, Betty, with two Ts, your resume is priceless. I would give you the job on humor alone, save for the fact we only have yoga available.

Colin Smith the flash fiction was great! I was trying to guess who the guy was...Death/Grim Reaper, was not the answer....

And more on topic, I used to put age after the name because that's what other people were doing. The internet is never wrong, you know? :)

LynnRodz said...

@Janet, once again you're on a roll and you inspire others to follow along.

@Hank, your first comment is why I don't read the comments here while eating or drinking! Felicia Navidad is priceless! I guess you are now the wiser about Bud and your wife Betty. Could be too much Budweiser was the culprit!

@Betty with 2 Ts, shame on you for telling Felix about Bud in front of all of us. You could have fixed a candlelight dinner for two and served up a few cold Buds to let him down easy.

@Colin, nice job!

@Donna, I too saw the darker side unlike Dena.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, my final query (so far) doesn't include any last names. I introduce the two protagonist and one antagonist in 250 words. The query flows better without including last names. I hope that doesn't count against me. What can I say, I too am a woodland creature.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Love your verbacious story (loquacious+verbose)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Lynn Rodz, Candlelight be damned. Felix knew I had a weakness for Brazilian soccer players, so the news that our middle child lives in the shadow of the Redeemer in Rio is most fitting.

Donna, no way would I be planning to ‘off’ my husband. He’s a sweet guy. I was planning his retirement because we recently came into a lot of money and he loves weaponry. As a matter of fact a reality show was released about my husband’s family. They all have long beards, calls ducks and are very controversial. They do not watch soccer but are into the politics of tea.

Colin, now that you have broken the ice by publishing you amazing story on Janet’s blog I feel it is time to release my 185,000 word epic sci-fi women’s fiction dystopian cozy murder mystery novel by way of Janet’s batshark crazy comments. It’s called, Fifty Twilighty Shades of Hunger while on The Road to Fargo.

After reading today’s post I believe I will have to edit the first line though. It’s a bit wordy, so I slashed it. Short and to the point. As a matter of fact I’ll bet it becomes famous. I’ll bet writers will be studying the impact of my first sentence for years to come.

“My name was Ishmael, now it’s Felix.”

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I've changed it to "Call me Betty with 2Ts.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mrs. Buttonweezer,

That's not the drift I get. I'm afraid you should have the proverbial come to Hayseuss talk with Mr. B, ole Betty with 2T's, or...,as Mr. B. said, maybe it oughta be Trollop with 2 L's?

Hm. Better ask him. He seemed to be in a real snit a few comments up.

AJ Blythe said...

My day wouldn't be right without first absorbing Janet's words of wisdom, and then rolling on the floor laughing at the comments.

Thanks all!!

Erica Eliza said...

Thanks for the answer.

Dena Pawling said...

Donna et al – Your interpretation of that sentence is probably the interpretation Janet intended, since after all, that's the genre of book she represents. However, I write women's fiction, so here's how I see the rest of that query:

Dr. Felix Buttonweezer was only 34 when Mrs. Buttonweezer started planning for his retirement. [Insert Betty's smile and contented sigh here.] Her life turned upside down when __________

[Insert one of the following options in the blank above:]

1. she came home and found her 16yo son Mark, the apple of her eye and conceived by IVF after 10 years of trying, standing over Felix's dead body with a bloody knife in his hand.

2. she learned about Felix's long-standing affair with his secretary, Ruth.

3. she learned about Felix's long-standing affair with his secretary, Nathan.

4. she decided her retirement years looked better with Felix's secretary, Nathan.

5. she decided her retirement years looked better with Felix's secretary, Ruth.

6. the police knocked on the door and informed her Felix was in a horrendous crash, and now her retirement years are filled with spoon-feeding him and changing his diaper.

Now I have all these stories swirling around in my head! Not sure if I should be thanking all of you, or cursing you :)

If any of these ideas solidify sufficiently for me to throw some of Carolynn's linguine at it and it sticks, I'll be sure to mention all of you on the acknowledgment page.

Erica Eliza said...

Dena Pawling-
Do it. But please take pity on the poor man and change his name.

Anonymous said...

Colin, good job!

"Thanks! Of course, as soon as I post my comment I start thinking of the rest of the story, which could make a good short story, or novel IF I hadn't gone and published that snippet here."

I doubt this would preclude you from publication. So many people post excerpts on their blogs it's amazing. One gal on Books and Writers is posting every word of her first draft of her novel on her blog. She's very proud of it. I have to admit for a first draft it isn't bad, but I think posting your entire novel isn't a good thing. However, she will not be dissuaded. She thinks it's good advertising.

Diana Gabaldon regularly posts snippets of her work, including new stuff I believe, preceded by copious spoiler alerts. She often does this to demonstrate a writing technique. How she knows where to find the precise excerpt out of all those words to do this, I have no earthly idea. 'Tis magic.

Jenz said...

Hmm, I also imagined some sinister motive for the early retirement planning.

I have to give my first real lecture of the semester in a couple of hours, and now I feel all cynical. I usually try to save that for much later in the semester.