One of the most common “query letter red flags” that I see is the query letter with a passive character. At the agency, when I would read a query letter with a passive-sounding character, I would take that as an indication that the character was passive in the manuscript as well. Generally, these queries did not turn into requests. As an editorial consultant, I assume that a passive-sounding character in a query means the manuscript needs another round of edits before it should be submitted to an agent or editor.
A passive character:
- doesn’t drive the story, but is instead driven by circumstance
- is reactive, instead of active
- could walk away without any real consequence
- isn’t as engaging to the reader
- could be replaced by any other character who would have happened to be at the same place at the same time
So what does a passive-sounding query look like? Something like this:
Dear Ms. Agent,
Billy Rubbel had only forty hours to live. That’s if he didn’t find the amulet on time.
When a genie curses Billy as he walks down the street, Billy doesn’t know that his life has just been shortened. But help is on the way in the form of Mageallan, who finds Billy and hands him the secret to unlock the genie’s curse. When Billy accidentally discovers the amulet in his gym locker, he thinks the mystery is over. That’s until the genie finds him again, and with just a few hours to spare…
THE LOCKER GENIE, THE AMULET AND ME is a fantasy of 70,000 words.
While it might sound like there’s a lot of action (however ridiculous) in this query, Billy is not a character that drives any of it. The genie curses him, but according to the query, Billy is then found by Mageallan. So, instead of going on a search to solve his own problem, help comes directly to him. Later, Billy accidentally discovers the amulet — the one thing he needs to live. According to the query, he doesn’t find the amulet through skill or action, he stumbles upon it.
Through this sort of query, we learn nothing about why it is Billy, instead of any other character that has to go on this particular quest. We don’t get a sense of the plot, because we don’t get a sense of how Billy is going to solve his own problem. (As written, the query letter reader might assume that Billy just kills time until the next step is shown to him, which makes for a boring read.) And, as a query letter reader, we assume that the manuscript is going to be full of “lucky breaks” or logic holes that don’t quite work. (For example, why would the amulet be in his gym locker one day and not the next? If Mageallan puts it there, and then “hands him the secret to unlock the curse” by telling him where the amulet is, why not just hand him the amulet instead of hiding it in a locker for him to “discover?”)
Look at your query:
- Is your character portrayed as an active participant in their journey, or a passive one?
- Is this indicative of a larger problem in the manuscript?
- How can you rewrite to ensure that it’s clear that this particular character is the only one that can solve that particular problem?
This post was originally published in my newsletter.