Querying is all about character.
You’re selling a character. Not a world, not a setting, not a plot, not a vibe—but a character.
Your character works as a direct arrow to the heart of the agent. The character is what makes them want more. Agents are only humans, after all, and humans naturally seek emotional connection in everything they do. Secure this emotional connection—and you’ll secure a full request.
So, how do you do this? How do you best sell your character?
I’ve written a lot of queries for myself in the past decade, and I’ve critiqued a lot of queries as well. For students, friends, and colleagues. I find that there’s something comforting about the analytical approach to a query. It’s an ingredient list; if you check off enough ingredients, you’re good. A query is not as subjective as a book. It’s safer, in a way. In this sense, it’s your job to give it enough experimental edge, while still keeping it safe, so that agents can’t resist wanting more.
In my opinion, you have two jobs to do for a solid query:
- Sell your story via your character.
- Keep the selling 90% on-script… and 10% off-script (that’s your edge).
Below here, I’ve compiled a list of the feedback that I often end up giving during my query critiques. I’ll happily and confidently call them universal query advice. As you read along, you’ll find that character is what drives the query forward. And that’s both your written characters, but also yourself as a sellable character.
“What should I Include in my pitch?“
This is where you want to sell your character. Paradoxically, the best way to sell your character is by investing the agent in the character’s physical journey. This sounds contradictory, I know. Like the best of both worlds. “So, Amalie, I have to emotionally connect the agent to my character… via the plot?” Yes. Yes, you do. Because the point is to show the external plot through the internal lens of the character. That’s two birds with one stone, baby (or two flies with one smack, as the Danish saying goes). You do this by asking three questions:
- What does your character want? (external/internal goal)
- What stands in their way of getting what they want? (conflict)
- What do they stand to lose if they fail? (stakes)
By framing your pitch around your character’s goal/conflict/stakes, you will automatically hook the agent emotionally while also giving away the right amount of plot. You will end up with something along the lines of this:
- Louisa wants to save herself from an unwanted marriage (internal goal), and so she decides to steal a specific jewel as blackmail material (external goal).
- The owners of the jewel have it locked up in a vault, thus standing in Louisa’s way (conflict).
- If Louisa doesn’t get the jewel, she will end up marrying against her will, losing her independence, unless she finds another way of escaping the marriage (stakes).
While I don’t believe that conflict-driven narratives (as they are prominent in western culture) are inherently better than any other type (see kishoutenketsu, daisy chain storytelling, robleto etc.), I can only advice you that most agents seemingly get invested in conflict the easiest and fastest. They get involved in drama. And no matter what type of story you write, I bet that it has drama which you can hone in on as a way of investing the agents.
This is also where I want to mention survival stories. There is a general misconception that the struggle to survive isn’t a choice/conflict in itself, but I believe that’s a lie. Surviving absolutely is a choice and conflict. These characters are working on overcoming trauma that has affected their mobility to act and make choices on a fundamental level. They can’t make any active choices yet, because they first have to regain that ability. That is their active choice, namely to regain the ability to make choices. And that does count.
“How do I make my character instantly relatable?“
Your fastest (and easiest) chance of making your character relatable happens during the first line of your pitch. When you introduce your character, try to add a key personality feature that immediately makes the agent feel as if they truly know this person. Something along the lines of these examples:
Do say: “Twenty-year-old Louisa, clumsy to fault, must…”
Do say: “Twenty-year-old headstrong Louisa isn’t prepared for…”
(By contrast, don’t say: “When twenty-year-old Louisa discovers…”)
“How do I build up stakes in a pitch?“
Ideally, you should have stakes weaved throughout your entire pitch, and they should gradually build up and expand in scope. It should be an organic escalation as viewed through the lens of the character.
I like to imagine these stakes as a blooming flower. Narrow to broad. Bud to bloom. To that end, it starts with personal/low stakes and finishes with global/high stakes. Again, narrow to broad.
If you focus on selling your character in your pitch, then this journey from personal stakes to global stakes will happen naturally. You will end the pitch with something along the lines of this: “But when Louisa’s steals the jewel to save herself from an unwanted marriage, she ends up embroiled in an international smuggling scheme that threatens all of her kingdom and not just her family.”
“Should I start with my pitch, or my metadata?”
I personally think this is a matter of where your novel falls on the marketability spectrum. Typically, the books that adhere to genre have a stronger commercial appeal, which makes them easier to market, which means they often have a snappy hook. In that case, I’d say to put the pitch first—because it has that snappy character-focused hook.
If your novel adheres less to genre, plays with genre, or blends genre, then you might be better off putting your metadata first. I say this because the metadata helps set the right expectations for the agent, which means they’re less likely to make the wrong assumptions and are thus less likely to be disappointed. Novels that adhere less to genre are harder for agents to navigate in terms of expectation, so it can often be a boon to put the metadata first in your query, before your pitch, if you have a novel like this.
Please note that metadata includes the title, the wordcount, the agent personalization, and the published comparative titles for your novel (comp titles).
“How should I add specificity to my comparative titles?“
When it comes to comp titles, it’s once again a matter of setting the right expectations for the agent so they don’t go into your book assuming wrong, which leads to disappointment, which leads to rejection.
Firstly, you should always specify why you’ve picked your comps, and you should specify individually for each comp. Don’t bulk together in one sentence, but separate in the same sentence.
Don’t say: “My book shares an atmosphere and theme like C.L. Polk’s Witchmark and Stewart’s The Bone-Shard Daughter.”
Do say: “My book has the wintry atmosphere of C.L. Polk’s Witchmark, and a similar thematic core of familial obligation as Stewart’s The Bone-Shard Daughter.”
You can also safely use the “my book will appeal to fans of Erin Morgenstern’s prose” framework. Here it’s important that you use authors who are universally known for excelling at something (such as Morgenstern’s prose), and that this author writes within the genre of your book somehow. Otherwise, the point of setting the right expectations for the agent is lost.
For comp titles, it’s also advisable to use ones that are less than five years old. This shows you’re active in the market of the genre you’re pitching. If it’s a book series, then you can go by the release date of the last book (even if the first one is older than five years). In this same way, you can go the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” route. That is, you can say “Pride and Prejudice, but with zombies!” or “the Great Gatsby, but in space!” or “The Godfather, but with fairies!”
I personally think the best comps are those that focus on either a) atmosphere/setting, b) characters, c) theme, and d) prose. The last thing you want to compare is plot and overall style. Ironically, this is because these are almost too specific to the individual books and individual authors. When it comes to setting expectations, too much specificity can lead to agent disappointment just as easily as too little specificity.
“What should I include in my bio?“
A lot of people think that because they have no publishing credentials, they have a bad bio—but that’s not necessarily true. Just like you’re selling your characters in your pitch, then you’re also selling yourself (as a character) in your bio.
The bio isn’t just about showing what products you’ve made, but also to show your determination and your discipline in your chosen career field. Remember, you’re asking an agent to work with you for years to come. You’re asking for a business partner to choose you. And business partners as just as impressed with your products as they are with your initiatives.
If you’ve been a host at a conference, or participated in a special workshop, or have edited an anthology, or is the founder of a recurring online writing event, or is a volunteer in a writing program… then put this in your bio because this shows involvement. It shows that you’re committed, and there’s nothing that a potential business partner admires more than that.
There’s more advice than this to be had, for sure, and it’s always important to cross-reference any advice you’re given, but these are the most universal tidbits that I can give you based on my own experience. I hope it can help ease some concerns of yours.
I’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines!