How to Use Proper Nouns in a Query

A lot of authors (myself included) love to tell you the names of everything and everyone in our stories. The people and places in it matter to us. I mean, when I talk about my wife and kids, it means so much more to me to use their names. I want them to mean the same to you.

But to you, they're nobody--just names. It's a common problem in query letters, where the author figures giving you a name for everything counts as "being specific." But it's not specific. It's actually confusing. Take this, for example:

Sam Draper needs someone non-threatening to consult a seer named Victoria, hiding among the monks at the Monastery of St. Jude -- he reckons Hagai Wainwright is as non-threatening as they come. Hagai agrees, intending to turn Sam in to Lt. Rafael Tobin at the first opportunity. But when Victoria says Sam is the key to finding his mother Anna, Hagai chooses Anna’s life over the law.

Kind of a lot to take in, right? And that's only a portion of the query. Imagine 2-3 more paragraphs packed with names like that. After a point, it gets hard to keep them all straight. Result? Confusion. Form rejection.

Using a proper noun is like taking a highlighter to your query. It can make important information pop out and your query easier to read. But used too much, it actually interferes with comprehension, to the point where it would be better to not name anything at all.

So then, in true analytical fashion, I give you 4 tips to using proper nouns in a query:
  1. Any character, group, or place that is mentioned only once should not be named.
  2. If possible, only the protagonist(s) and villain(s) should be named. No more than 3 names in a query!
  3. For characters (etc.) that need to be mentioned more than once, but do not deserve a place of importance next to the main characters, try meaningful identifiers: "his mother," "a group of assassins," "her home planet."
  4. If you must give a character's FULL name, do it once at the beginning.
Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on your story. But let's apply these tips to the example above:

Sam needs someone non-threatening to consult a seer hiding among the monks -- he reckons Hagai is as non-threatening as they come. Hagai agrees, intending to turn Sam in at the first opportunity. But when the seer says Sam is the key to finding his mother, Hagai chooses his mother’s life over the law.

If nothing else, it's more clear who the major players are now. If the seer came up again in the query, I'd probably give her name (but she doesn't, so I didn't). Otherwise, who cares about the name of the monastery she's at? And the specific officer Hagai goes to isn't important either, just that he goes to the law (or thinks about it).

Anyway, that's just my take. What do you think?


vic caswell said...

great point!!! that clears things up SO MUCH!

Matthew MacNish said...

Excellent advice. I say basically the same thing when I critique queries. Please make sure you name the protag, and feel free to name the antag, but only name the love interest and the best friend if you absolutely have to. Anyone else should be left out completely, or at the very most identified without being actually named.

It's interesting, because my own novel has a pretty big ensemble cast, but I go to special pains not to give anyone a proper name in my query except the MC.

Great post. Thanks Adam!

Adam Heine said...

@aspiring: As always, I'm glad when my advice actually helps somebody :-)

@Matthew: It's especially hard with an ensemble cast, I think. But I still think it's right. If you were telling someone what the A-Team or X-Men were about, you wouldn't rattle off the names of everyone on the team. You'd talk about Hannibal and Xavier, and name maybe one other member of the team if the story was about them more than the others.

Adam Heine said...

All that to say: I think you're doing the right thing, Matthew!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

This was a hard one for me to figure out - not only for the query, but for my log line. But I realized it really works when my book came out and the first thing everyone says is, "What's it about?" No one wants to hear the names, but they all want to know it's about a college girl and a Navy recruit.

Now, if I could just figure this out for my querie(s)! Thanks for the reminder!

Adam Heine said...

Yeah, I think it's different for loglines, Susan. As you say, I'd be wary of using any names at all.

Myrna Foster said...

This makes sense because "his mother" or "the officer" tells the reader more than a name would. Thanks, Adam!

Keriann Greaney Martin said...

Great point! I probably wouldn't have thought of that :)