Monday, January 21, 2013

Character Development Series: Question #5 - Tagging Your Characters

Previous posts in this series include discussions on human nature, the impression your characters have of themselves, and how that may differ from the impression they give others, aligning character impressions with their roles in the plot and last week we covered one method of creating depth.

This week we're focusing on a practical way to help your readers envision and identify your characters. We're creating character "tags":

Question #5: What does your character have, say, or do, that is unique to them?

A character tag is a physical trait, speech inflection, way of moving, mannerism, mode of dress, etc, etc, etc - anything that is unique only to that character. It's a quick fall-back position for a writer to tell the reader this person is here, but more importantly, it's another layer of characterization.

By identifying character tags, you won't necessarily have to rely on physical descriptions to highlight the entrance of a character. And if you get really creative with it, you'll heighten the reader's understanding of the character.

There are several trains of thought about how to choose tags, but I'll give you mine: Wherever possible, make the tag a sensory experience.

Sure, it can be visual - I had a character whose supernatural heritage meant he was extremely tall and had unusually bright green eyes. It would be easy to fall back on the eyes as his tag, and at times I did. But more often, I tried to remind the reader of the physical space he inhabited. He loomed, he unfolded, he cast shadows and, to the heroine's point of view, he seemed to suck more air than the average man (because she always got a trifle breathless around him).

(Yeah, yeah, I know).


Visual tags are easy to use, and most of your characters will have them. But the best writers I know have a way of tagging their characters that offers more than just a physical trait.

For example:

- The guy whose clothes are always rumpled. It's a visual tag, but also offers impressions about how he cares for himself (or doesn't). Is there no one at home to take care of him? Or does he not care...?

- The woman whose voice sounds like a child's - which is either endearing, or irritating, depending on who she's talking to. That way, her tags are identifiable, but also colored by the perceptions of those she's dealing with. Also, she squeaks when she's surprised, and squeals when she's excited.

- The guy who always walks / stands like he has a poker stuck up his nether regions. As you can imagine, his tags include a certain detachment in his speech, and a rather stiff, upright posture. But the poker-in-your-jacksie cue says a lot more about him than whether or not he was raised as a military brat.

- The young woman who never appears in public without being coiffed and dressed to perfection. Her tags become words like "glossy", "sleek" and "plastic" because, you see, it isn't about the clothes or the hairstyle, it's what those things tell you about who she is.

I'm sure I've made my point. Now my advice would be this: Take the table you made a couple questions back and add a column. In that column, list three or four words or phrases to define that character's tags. As you're writing, you don't want to use the same words every time, but bring them into play any time that character enters a scene, or is referred to by other characters.

And remember: tags aren't necessarily about describing the character physically (though they can be). They are about creating an image for the reader that enhances or compliments the character's primary impression.


Your Turn: Any questions? What are some great tags you've seen used in books you love?


  1. Good stuff as usual, Aimee. Shared, and doggone it I'll have to get to work on that table! Thanks (^;

  2. I love using character tags! Like you said, they're easy and effective. Great post!