We need a hero: Choosing the main character in a manuscript with multiple POVs
There isn't enough room for all your characters in a good query or synopsis, so how do you pick one?
Thank you to everyone who attended my querying masterclass last weekend at “The Shit No One Tells You About Writing”s annual retreat. There were a lot of wonderful questions, but this one stuck with me from the Q&A Zoom tab:
In order to write a great pitch letter, query, synopsis, or even a proposal, it usually works best to hone in on one or two main characters. But how do you do that when you have multiple perspectives in your book?
Multiple perspective narratives are loved by lots of readers: Jonathan Franzen, Emma Straub and Anthony Doerr have all had bestsellers recently that hop from head to head. And while I am bad at writing these kinds of books myself, I’m good at helping writers understand how to pitch them. Accordingly, we’re going to look at three descriptions for successful multi-perspective narratives that elevate 1-2 people to “main character” status for marketing reasons. These examples are from novels, but multi-POV narratives aren’t unheard of in nonfiction—the main character will either be the person you are profiling (reported nonfiction, biographies) or it will be yourself (memoir).
Let’s get into it.
The Adam and Eve narrative: Identifying the principal two people that all the other characters are related to
Let’s start with with I’m calling “The Adam and Eve” narrative for projects involving the tracing of multiple people backwards via DNA.
Below us sits the descriptive copy for Yaa Gyasi’s fantastic debut novel, Homegoing. I’m not going to tell you what it’s about because that rectangle will do it for you, but basically, we’ve got a DNA story here that starts with two half-sisters who are separated in their youth because “of forces beyond control” and then tracks the different paths of their descendants:
I just finished this book so I can tell you that it is a complex and difficult literary novel: difficult because of its subject matter and candid, gorgeous writing, and difficult because there are many complex stories stemming from the principal ones of Effia and Esi (which traverse decades and continents). This book must have been challenging on so many levels for Gyasi to write, and I bet it was hard as hell to summarize in the paragraphs above.
So let’s look at some tricks that either Gyasi or her marketing team employed to make this difficult novel sound accessible. (It shocks people, but it’s usually the authors who write their descriptive copy, and even the pitch letters that agents send to editors.)
Note the nods towards structure that I’ve put into yellow highlights and outlined again here:
This bestseller begins with
traces the generations
one thread of Homegoing follows
The other thread follows
From the….to the
I can just imagine the copywriter scratching their head like, “shit! This is such a complex novel, how do I honor its complexity in the limited space I have?”
The answer is to just come out and announce where the book begins, then note that there are different threads but only highlight two of them (one thread does this, another does that), before finishing with the time tested “From the….to the” trick, to illustrate what other kinds of threads there are.
Homegoing is a brilliant book, and this descriptive copy is a brilliant piece of writing. It gives us two main characters while also illustrating the epic sweep of their descendant’s stories without getting into the weeds about them.
The friends-stuck-in-a-house set-up: One architectural structure with a whole lot of people in it. Who is the MC?
“The Big Chill.” “Wedding Crashers.” Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro. All these films and books share the same set-up: there’s a house available for a long weekend, and it’s stuffed with friends.
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty is a departure from this trope in that the house is a retreat center, and the friends are strangers. But this book still has a lot of characters (nine of them), and a copywriter who had to figure out which character to highlight in the book’s descriptive blurb for Amazon.
This copy is a thing of beauty. I’ve read this book multiple times (every time I try to write a multi-POV narrative, I turn to it as an instruction manual), and I can tell you that this blurb makes it sound like the book is written in a close third or first person on Frances: spoiler alert, it isn’t. All nine characters get their stories told because the novel has enough runway for them. But you don’t have that runway in a two-paragraph description! Let’s look closer at what this description does so well:
The “From the…to the” reboot:
Instead of using the “From the…to the” trick that we saw Gyasi employ, here we lead with a similar teaser. “There are nine people, some have this problem, others have this problem.” We establish, basically, that all of the characters will be dysfunctional in some way, which will make them fun to watch destruct. Plus, there are so many characters, we’ll get to choose our favorite(s).
Why Frances as the main character?
Frances is my favorite character in this novel, and she’s also one of my favorite characters, period. But it was a genius move to elevate Frances to the main character of this particular book. Why? Because she’s a writer. She’s an observer. She’s watching all the time. So in this book that employs the age-old trope of lots of people smushed together for a given amount of time, it makes sense that she (the author who is trying to make a career comeback) would be taking the most notes.
Treating others as a mystery, even when they aren’t
“The strange and charismatic owner of Tranquilim House” won’t be a mysterious character for Moriarty’s readers: she gets lots of chapters in her own voice and the book starts with her backstory. But it’s clever of the writer to paint her as opaque. It makes you want to buy the book to find out what’s so mysterious about this character, and all the other ones you don’t get to meet in this description. So smart.
Using Frances’ conundrum to represent everyone else’s
Frances isn’t the only one who wants to run away from this freaky deeky resort she’s jailed in, and the concluding copy makes a nod to that. (Why? Because there are nine other people in this retreat center with her. Surely several of them want to head for the hills, too.) But ending this paragraph with something like, “Should everyone head for the parking lot and get the hell out of there in their electric cars?” sounds messy and sophomoric. As we all know by now, gatekeepers like material in which one person is forced to reckon with something, face up to something, or change, and this copy promises that (even though these changes happen to all nine people in this book.)
The forces that shaped her: One hero powered by many
Last week, I urged you to read Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow. Have you?
Let’s look at the descriptive copy for it, another stroke of genius:
Here’s the thing about this novel. It covers almost a century of voices, and there are a lot of them. In this copy, just like for Moriarty, the writer has decided to elevate one person (Joan) but the reasons for doing so are different than they were in Nine Perfect Strangers. In that example, an observer-by-profession is put into the director’s chair. Here, Joan is used as both a byproduct and a deviation from the other women in her family. Where Frances is a witness, Joan stands for hope.
Structurally, this copy blurb is worthy of an award. Memphis jumps all over the place in terms of time, and Joan’s particular timeline doesn’t anchor the narrative as obviously as this descriptive copy suggests. (She’s ten years old for ten hot seconds in the book.) The descriptive copy is more commercial than the novel actually is, which is a smart move, because it opens the book to a readership beyond sophisticates.
Contrast Memphis’s descriptive copy, for example, with this for Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts:
Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of "autotheory" offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. It binds an account of Nelson's relationship with her partner and a journey to and through a pregnancy to a rigorous exploration of sexuality, gender, and "family." An insistence on radical individual freedom and the value of caretaking becomes the rallying cry for this thoughtful, unabashed, uncompromising book.
Memphis was a Read with Jenna Book Club pick published this past spring that has 2,347 reviews on Amazon. The Argonauts was published in 2015 and has 682 Amazon reviews.
The Argonauts isn’t trying to be Memphis. Stringfellow isn’t a better writer than Nelson. (I love me some Maggie N.) But Stringfellow’s team had commercial ambitions for her first novel, and the way they wrote her descriptive copy (and pinned all of the ambitions in the novel to one character) reflects that.
So when you’re deciding which character to highlight for your project’s pitch letter or descriptive copy, ask yourself which one can best support your work’s themes and ambitions. Which person is symbolic? Who’s the matriarch?
Hopefully, the above examples will guide you toward a better understanding of how to do that.
“Get the Word Out” Publicity Incubator applications open until October 21: This ingenious opportunity offers debuting authors assistance in planning and executing a publicity plan under the mentorship of an accomplished book publicist, in this question: Lauren Cerand— the bestest in the business. You can learn all about this initiative here.
Write me with your publishing questions! I’m squirreling away questions to address in future office hours. Please send your publishing conundrums to email@example.com with “Substack Q+A” in the subject title. I don’t generally respond unless I’m going to use your question, but you never know.
How to birthday like a child: This past weekend, we ran a field games birthday party for my daughter, and every single activity saw the parents jumping in out of nostalgia and a deep yearning for the lost innocence of their youth. I highly recommend bobbing for apples and running sack races with your adult friends. Musical chairs was also a big hit.
Remember: The 7am Novelist kicks off October 4th! A seven-week mini MFA program led by Michelle Hoover that’s completely free? Bless her. And say what??
Otherwise, I’m off to Bedford, NY today to speak to the dedicated animal lovers at The Bedford Riding Trail Association and Endeavor Therapeutic Horsemanship about The Year of the Horses for a fundraiser. I’m going to be in conversation with Elisabeth Weed, an A-list agent at the absolutely A list agency, The Book Group. I am very excited and honored by this. I’m doing a lot of speaking engagements currently about the healing power of animals and the special relationship between women and horses, so if you know of an organization or even a private group of women who might like a visit from me, please do let me know.
Until then, enjoy the changing leaves and sunshine,
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