Friday, September 15, 2017

Character Tags: What They Are and How to Use Them

I'm terrible at remembering people's names.

I can remember the way they talk and walk. I can remember the ways they fidget. I can even remember special features about their appearance: Their hair, the type of glasses they wear, the tattoo on their wrist.

But I can't remember names.

And, unfortunately, neither can a lot of readers.

Think about the last book you read and actually enjoyed. Do you remember the names of all of the characters? Possibly not. But you do remember specific things about each character: Their quirks, their likes, their dislikes, phrases they used a lot.

You remember their character tags.

And that, my friends, is what we will discuss today. Character tags.
Character Tags: What They Are and How to Use Them
What is a character tag? It is a specific device that we, as writers, use to label a character. It is a unique action a character does that immediately calls to mind that character's personality. It is not a replacement for character development: You still need to develop a character and make each one different from the rest. Character tags are simply a way to aid in this process. For example:

Meet Fred. Fred is a very bubbly, excited person. We know this because of how you've presented him in your novel: He's always optimistic, he smiles a lot, and often gets into enthusiastic discussions with others. His character tag? He waves his hands around when he speaks. A lot. Now you can have a character walk into the room and start waving his arms and your reader immediately knows: That's Fred.

Why are they helpful? Because, as mentioned before, readers often forget a character's name. And, if you have enough characters, sometimes they all start to blend together in your readers mind, especially if there are characters with similar outlooks, goals, or names. A character tag helps remind your reader, "Oh, yeah! That's that guy! He's always happy. I know because he's always making excited gestures with his hands."

How can I use them? I'm so glad you asked. There are, in fact, dozens of different types of character tags. Let me walk you through some of the main ones:

Physical Traits

Hair color, eye color, height, voice. Take a unique physical trait and connect it to something unique in the character.
  • Notable Example: Merida. She has wild, fiery red hair. This is not only a tribute to her Scottish heritage, but is also connected to her wild personality and fiery disposition. Of course, other characters in this movie do have red hair, but it's not quite as red or as untamed as hers. 
Seriously, Disney, nobody's hair moves that way in the wind. STOP IT.
It's worth noting that this is the weakest type of tag. Why? Because people don't really have any control over their physical traits, so they aren't generally indicative of personality and thus not always helpful for character building. That's not to say you can't use this tag: It just requires some extra thought. Also: perhaps consider using it in addition to another tag.

Dialogue 

Speech patterns, slang, vocabulary, repetitive phrases, and accents all fall under this category.
  • Notable Example: Yoda. Only speaks like this, he does. Whenever we hear people speaking in anastrophe, we think: "Ah, yes. Yoda, Jedi Master." Or, depending on our level of commitment to the Star Wars fandom: "That creepy-looking green puppet from that one sci-fi movie." 
Speech can tell us a lot of things about a character. The dude who says "yo" all the time is memorable....Even more memorable if he is, in fact, a very intelligent though very casual professor. The character who uses large words is unique....Even more so if she is six years old. These tags help remind your readers of who the character is and what makes them special.

Body Language

Hand gestures, arm folding, slumped shoulders, constantly fidgeting with hair, etc.
  • Notable Example: Heath Ledger's Joker. Throughout the movie we see the Joker licking the sides of his mouth. This enforces his appearance of insanity while also making us wonder more about his scars because they appear to be uncomfortable to him. 
Not only should body language character tags be noticeable, but they should also tell us something about the character. Lots of hand gestures? Oh, that's the excited character. Folded arms? Mr. Grumpy Pants. Always stands with heels together and feet pointed out? That's the ballerina. Rubbing temples? He's the stressed-out one.

Possessions 

You know. That one thing that your character is rarely seen without. It's either an article of clothing or  something that can be carried around with them.
  • Notable Example: Peter Quill. He always has his walkman with him, so much so that it is elemental to his character. Not only does it have an unique backstory (his terminally ill mother made it for him), but it defines an important part of his character (his free, somewhat off-kilter spirit matches the music on his walkman tape). 
This is the most common character tag and arguably the most fun to write. The item often has a backstory, but doesn't necessarily need one. It almost always is an elemental part of the character's personality, but sometimes it's just this weird, unexplained thing a character happens to like. Have fun with it. 

Scent 

Errr. I don't really know how else to describe this? The way a character smells. Which sounds weird, but bear with me.
  • Notable Example: The Pallid Man from the 12 Monkeys TV series. We don't even know his name, but we always know where he's been or if he's nearing the other characters. Why? Because he smells of jasmine and lavender. Two nice scents that now have a very negative connotation to the characters in this series because the Pallid Man is a killer.
The best usages of this character tag is usually when it's done ironically. When scents that should mean one thing (lavender = peace) end up meaning something very, very different (lavender = death). But, of course, you can do whatever you want. I'm not the boss of you. 

What are some issues to avoid? 
  • Stereotyping. I see a lot of very stereotyped character tags: The innocent girl with blue eyes. The villain who always wears black. Let's get a bit more creative. 
  • Overdoing it. If your character tag is stuttering, you don't need your character to stutter every word. If it's a person constantly tapping his foot on the ground, he doesn't have to do that all of the time. You want to avoid using repetitive terms or cramming tags down readers throats. It's okay to be subtle. 
  • Relying on character tags as a substitution for character development. This is a character development aid, not a replacement. You still need to give your character a memorable personality and arc.
What do you think? Did I miss anything? What are some of your favorite character tags? I'd love to hear from you!

Have writing or reading questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah in the comment section below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

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22 comments:

  1. Huh. I didn't even know these existed to be honest. XD;

    Great article!

    Does this mean that Gabriel's southern accent; and Persephone's love for food, knives, and invasion of personal space are all tags then? Or perhaps Michael's Rosary, which his late father gave him as a symbol of passing on his Catholic faith to him? (Michael holds onto this item a lot and often looks at or touches it to give himself strength.)
    Or maybe the way Mr. Mortality dresses is sort of a character tag? It's definitely one of the stand-out things about him, and holds a lot of symbolism for his character.

    Does this sound right? o3o

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    1. Haha! Congratulations. You have learned at least one new thing today. This is excellent news. =) *high five*

      Yes, all of those sound like excellent character tags. I especially like the food, invasion of personal space, and rosary tags. Those are fun! I love characters who are always munching on one thing or another. It makes me happy.

      You are doing an awesome job, Donna! Keep up the amazing work!

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  2. Great post! I need to work on giving my characters consistent tags, because I have this terrible habit of changing them halfway through.
    One of my favourite examples of a character tag is L in Death Note: he tucks his thumb under his upper lip when thinking, but maybe I like it because I do the same thing and I've never met a real person who does. :)
    The only example of scent as a tag that I can think of is President Snow from the Hunger Games. The thing about roses and blood was really creepy (shudder).

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    1. I do this, too, actually. I take comfort in knowing that I can make everything uniform during editing. =D

      I LOVE L's character tags! I almost used him as my example for the Body Language section, but I wasn't sure how many people would be familiar with him. His entire character is super unique. I love it.

      Great comment, Fran! Thank you for reading!

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  3. Basically tags are the quirks that make characters stand out? Haha I love identifying tags in my friends then. It engages my imagination then makes them seem like living fictional characters. It's literately the best thing ever. Their tag endear them to my heart and I kinda fall in love with how beautiful people are. Thus I adore my friends and am secretly all their biggest fans. lol XD

    Fabulous as always! Tags are my favorite part of character building~

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    1. "Basically tags are the quirks that make characters stand out?" Exactly! You just summed up my whole post in one sentence. =D

      I love finding my friend's character tags, too! It's great fuel for writing, too. I may or may not have taken my friend's quirks and turned them into character tags. =)

      Thank you so much for the comment, Reigha. I always love hearing from you!

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  4. Character tags are needed to make them stand out to the reader. To be honest, they all have the same voice in my head. Laziness wins. For my soon-to-be-released fantasy, the MC is a village baker, so I changed her speech, leaning heavily on Demelza from Poldark.
    The trick with tags is to be consistent. If he's scratching his left ear in chapter one, he should be doing it throughout the book (and never his right ear).
    Thanks for the insights.

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    1. Demelza's speech pattern in awesome! I love that you're using that in your own novel. Go you! I often read characters all with the same voice, so it's great that you're trying to move your readers in a different direction.

      I totally agree about being consistent. That is absolutely key. Great comment, Cheryl! Thank you.

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  5. I love this sooo much better than just appearance. I mean, having black hair doesn't tell me your personality, but if you're always blowing strands of black hair out of your face, I know something about you. I've never had a name for these traits but character tags it is! Love this post!!

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    1. Yay! I'm glad you learned something new. I know that most writers use character tags....They just don't know that there's a term for it. =)

      Thanks so much for reading, Mary! Your point about the black hair was awesome. Now I want to use that. =D

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  6. Ha! I love Merida's hair, as unrealistic as it is. In my WIP one of my characters has short blue hair, it is the absolute opposite of her personality because she is the least outgoing person. But her hair is blue because she has to conceal her identity. Is that still a character tag? Also, could a character tag be someone who barely speaks, but maybe for example there eyes convey their emotions?

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    1. I love Merida's hair, too. =D And I really like your idea about the blue hair paired with a shy personality.

      As to your question: Yes, I think a character tag could be a person using their eyes to convey emotions. Though you'd need to be specific with *how* they do that. Is it blinking rapidly, shifting gazes, etc? Just find specific ways that the eyes convey emotions rather than their voice and you should be set!

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  7. I'm going to be completely honest, I remember more character names than I do real peoples' names. Anyway... how weird is it that I started working on character tags for my novel right the same day you posted this? For example, I realized all my antagonist does, trait wise, is smile. While good for the Joker, that's not really what I'm going for. Keeping this post open for reference while I work on my characters this weekend!

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  8. This is an intriguing concept, and one I think many of us implement to some extent without being aware of it. How do you think it translates to novels written in first person? Do the MC's "character traits" become particular patterns of thought, perhaps, since the reader has more exposure to their inner dialogue than pretty much anything else about them?

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  9. Haha, I've used these. I tend to run into a problem where when I don't know what else to make the character do, they do their character tag. (Is that a problem?) Then I end up with sentences like "Tim crossed his arms" and "Tim crossed his arms again" and "Tim re-crossed his arms" and "holy crap Tim STOP CROSSING YOUR ARMS" in my draft. (Thanks NaNo.)

    I noticed this a lot in the Magic Treehouse series...Jack was always pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Now I can't fix my sunglasses without thinking of him...is this good or bad? I don't know.

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  10. Could a character tag be an object? Such as a Rubik's Cube that's never been solved no matter how many times the character has tried hints and tricks?

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  11. I like this post a lot. It's funny how sometimes you have to force this stuff into some characters and other times it just happens in them. Thanks for the tips!

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  12. I've heard lots of people talk about character tags before, but up until now I never knew what they were. This post was very helpful! Right now I have a lot of characters to keep track of, and I want to write them well enough so that the reader can keep them straight too. Thanks!!

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  13. Nice post. This will be really helpful for me as I'm a beginning writer and struggle with detail sometimes. I thought you might like this new blog for YA authors looking to write clean, good, true, and beautiful, fiction. :) http://www.rebelliouswriting.com/p/blog-page.html
    God bless!

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    1. ^ Sorry, I just noticed that I commented from my sister's account. XD

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  14. This is the first time I've heard of character tags, and I'm glad for once that the new thing I learned is something I already do instead of something I have to go back and change (yay). I have a character who has wild hair, but it's because he's always running his hands through it when he's worried. The more worried he gets the wilder it is, so it's reflective of his mental state as well. On another note, a fun thing to do with character tags, I think, is if something traumatic or huge happens to a character, the tags can change. A character who pushes her hair out of her face so she seems confident and in control? Suddenly she has to go into hiding, and instead she tugs her sleeves down and ducks her head to hide identifying scars. A soldier who has taken up civilian life has to find something different to do than reach for her weapon when she feels threatened, even if it was something that was as natural to her character as breathing. Basically, character tags can change as the character changes, as long as the make sense. (And stay around long enough to be identifying again.)

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