Articles listing literary agents who are actively seeking new authors are writerly catnip. It’s a gateway drug to hope for any author who dreams of seeing their name written sideways on a bookshelf someday.
Every time I see one it’s like I’m playing ‘Fastest Finger First’ on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, where the odds are somewhat better than getting published these days. These articles are a temptation of success and glory to anyone who cares to take proper notice of them.
This sort of article is getting more common these days, precisely because I imagine that they get all the other clicks as well as mine. And of course for me there’s another bonus: they’re perfect blog fodder. It’s the best indication of what literary agents think is trending, or at least trended 6 months ago at best.
But trendspotting isn’t as easy as you think. You may reflect, for instance, that when some people say they want world peace, what they really mean is that they don’t want foreigners to take away their nice things. If someone tells you they want to concentrate on their work, they really mean your voice goes through them and they’re inches away from Sellotaping your mouth to your keyboard.
Reading between the lines of what agents say they want is vital. And the more clickbait I read, the more I see that it’s the same line: it’s the characters, stupid.
You’ll hear variously that they want uplifting stories (Up-Lit) and surprising plot twists (Grip-Lit). They say that want unique love stories and book club fiction which thoughtfully examines the issues of the day. When talking about character in specific, you’ll hear they’re looking for unique voices, or strong women, or middle grade characters with a sense of humour. But what does that all even mean?
The truth is that most agents don’t have a clue what they’re looking for, until they’ve read it. You’ll hear a lot of talk about unique voices: but what’s a unique voice, other than a character who’s so original it’s like they invented a personality type? Even though we all know, or think we know, people just like that… isn’t it just that we haven’t read about them before?
These characters could read out a shopping list and make it interesting. What they are not is Mary Sues. They remind us of the people we meet, rather than ourselves. And by being unpredictable, they create settings where anything can happen.
When I look back at some of the biggest runaway hits in recent times, one thing both unites them, and makes them stand out, and it isn’t story. It’s their main characters in general, and their unusualness in specific. Consider:
Connell and Marianne (Normal People): Sally Rooney is credited with being the voice of a generation. I confess this puzzles me sometimes, but still, this book about two really quite normal people who basically grow up and go to college without anything major happening at all resonated with several generations. I think this is because because Sally Rooney managed to show us that ‘real’ normal people are actually far weirder than most fictional characters.
Eleanor Oliphant (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine): You can say this is Up-Lit, or a story about loneliness, or the power of community. But really it’s a story about a very unique individual who doesn’t think at all like you do.
Rachel Watson (The Girl on the Train): the unreliable narrator who launched a thousand more. An alcoholic with serious memory issues makes the story gripping because there is always something important at the corner of her mind she can’t quite get to.
Nick and Amy Dunne (Gone Girl): two truly awful personalities play cat and mouse. Fascinating and wonderfully unpredictable in their awfulness, making perfectly fertile ground where anything could and did happen.
Jack Reacher (5,409 novels by Lee Child): Sure, you can say that these are standalone stories with merit all their own. But they’re not really. Lee Child fans would read any instalment about the enigmatic former military cop Jack Reacher walking down a road for no reason at all… oh, hang on.
Ensemble Pieces which are really character studies, united by what can be a tenuous narrative thread:
Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall:
A whole host of weird and interesting people united by a plane crash with an element of whodunit. I know Noah Hawley is a genius but this is good, even for him – wry social observation filtered through many voices which snare the reader within sentences of each new storyteller opening their chapter.
Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart:
The narrative thread tying this story together is almost non-existent, and it still works. This book stood out in its uniqueness. Most agents would have run away screaming from an ensemble piece told from double-digit different perspectives by a debut author, but The Spinning Heart showed them why this can actually be a good thing.
The moral of the story is that what a good book needs nowadays is the exact opposite of a Mary Sue. It’s not about characters you identify with. It’s about characters you couldn’t possibly hope to identify with – and nor would you want to.
We’re human beings. We’re fascinated with the otherness of other people. So take pity on a poor literary agent, and go and create something they don’t know they want yet. Give them an Abnormal Person.