Monday, September 15, 2014

Considerate Craft: Pitching Characters

It’s no secret that as an agent I’m particularly on the lookout for diverse books and authors to represent. I mentioned this the other week during #MSWL (a Twitter hastag where agents and editors talk about stories they’d like to see; it stands for “manuscript wishlist”) and one tweeter asked how they should put that information in a query.

Short answer is it’s up to the writer, and there are lots of choices, including leaving it out of the query. After all, the full complexities of a character or person cannot be summed up in a couple paragraphs.

Often, however, I see writers include these details in a way that comes off awkward or undermines their intent. So I want to give examples of where I see things go wrong and how I think they could be steered right.

(No actual examples here; just my made up versions similar to what I’ve seen. Also, they’re all pretty silly. This is not a how-to-write-a-pitch lesson by any means. Look in the query tips tag for advice on query-writing.)

1. The Upfront List

Queries usually have an introductory line or two before getting into the pitch proper. Often if a querier mentions the diversity in their book, it’s here.

“I noticed you are looking for books that are diverse, so you’ll like my book with strong female characters, lesbian characters, disabled characters, and black characters.”

This comes off a bit awkward and feels like the characters are solely defined by what they are instead of who they are. It also sounds a bit like quantity over quality. It’s great if all of those characters are in your book, but a list doesn’t tell the agent much and so would be better to leave out.

Try instead a simpler approach:

“I noticed you are looking for books that are diverse, and as that’s important to me, too, I thought you’d be interested in my manuscript.”

2. In-Pitch

This is when characters are described in the pitch itself. This can be a more seamless or subtle way of indicating diversity in your query.

“Adora was a normal girl leading a normal life. She paints sets with her gay best friend, argues over clothes with her black stepsister, and hanging out with her quirky deaf aunts: until one night she runs into Latino badboy Tomas battling it out with some vampires.”

It’s also quite easy for this approach to go awry. This example would raise red flags for me because the characters are all described by how they divert from the “default” (straight/white/male/non-disabled) and they hit on some stereotypes. I tend to assume that if characters feel like a stereotype in the query, they’re going to be doubly so in the manuscript itself.

Instead, focus on what is pertinent to the inciting plot:

“Adora is busy with painting sets for her best friend’s new play, negotiating clothes-sharing with her new stepsister, and hanging out with her deaf aunts. She’s hardly had time to even pine after her moody, long-time crush Tomas - until she runs into him battling it out with some vampires. Thanks to her knowledge of ASL, however, she sees them signing that they were just looking for a bathroom and she stops Tomas before anyone gets hurt.”

Because the characters’ races and sexualities weren’t plot-related, they can be left for the pages. But Adora’s knowledge of ASL ties into the plot, so mentioning that her aunts are deaf ties into the pitch. (Also, did I mention these pitches are really silly? Yeah…)

3. The Joke

“My character is half-vampire, half-werewolf; talk about diversity!”


I know it’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s not unique, it’s not clever, and it’s way too close to reality. There are literally books that replace POC with aliens or elves, where disability isn’t actually disability but a superpower, where any sexuality that isn’t straight is strictly subtextual.

The only way to fix that way of doing it is to not.

Really, including diversity in your query is tied to including diversity in your manuscript. For some writers, it means reflecting themselves, but writing outside of personal experience takes greater care. Here are are some blogs I recommend when it comes to writing diversely:
gif from Lilo and Stitch of one alien forcefully giving another alien a red View-Master and saying "Here. Educate yourself."
N.K. Jemisin on describing characters of color. (And you should then go on and read her whole blog because she’s brilliant.)

Marie Lu has a practical guide to writing diverse fiction. 

Malinda Lo writes about avoiding LGBTQ stereotypes in YA fiction.

Disability in Kidlit has a series of discussions about disability in fiction.

Rich in Color is a blog focused on fiction about characters of color and/or written by authors of color.

Diversity in YA was created to celebrate YA books about all kinds of diversity.

We Need Diverse Books was recently formed to address the lack of diverse narratives in children’s literature.

And of course I'm always looking for more examples. What are some successful ways you've seen cover copy on published books indicate diversity?


  1. These posts are always great resources! Thank you!

  2. The MC character in THE SWEETEST SPELL--one of my fav books--has a physically deformed foot. The book blurb doesn't mention anything about it, and I think that's what I love about this story. Emma's foot is just a part of who she is. It was amazing to see her overcome so much and find love. She also learned to love everything about herself, even the part of everyone used to make fun of.

    Did I mention it has magical cows and chocolate?

  3. I would totally read about Adora and Tomas! Seriously, great post. I've always wondered how to do this in a query and often leave it out because I just don't know how to say it non-awkwardly. The race and orientation of my characters is not how I want to define them.

  4. Very well said! I particularly love the example in #2.

  5. I use mostly Asian models in my images for book covers. I compiled this lightbox for interested authors and publishers: