Character Tags: What are they?

Tags, markers, labels, traits. The craft masters have a lot of words for the details that help readers identify and distinguish the characters in a story.

Here are 6 character aspects that you can mine for tags and 5 ways to put those tags to work.

What are character tags?

Jim Butcher says “TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them.”

“You hang tags on story people so that your reader can tell one character from another,” says Dwight Swain. “An impression, dominant or otherwise, is created by the tags a character bears.”

Put another way, “A tag . . . identifies a character and helps your readers to distinguish one story person from another,” says Mr. Swain.

What about those other terms?

Tags, markers, labels, traits . . . Are they synonyms?  Or are they different enough to make distinguishing them useful?

I’ll let you decide.  Here are how the masters define those other terms:

A. Labels

“Labeling,” says Mr. Swain, is “assigning a story person a dominant impression.” “Why do you label a character?  [Because] Your reader needs some clue or two to help him recognize each of your story people.”

B. Traits

Mr. Butcher says, “TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. . . . These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader’s benefit, so that it’s easy to imagine [the character] when the story pace is really rolling.”

Mr. Swain says, “Tags of attitude–sometimes called traits–mark the habitually apologetic, fearful, irritable, breezy, vain, or shy.”

C. Markers

Sol Stein says, “The process of identifying [characters’] different worlds for the reader can be accomplished quickly through markers, easily identified signals that to the majority of readers will reveal a character’s cultural and social background.”

To me, these terms all run together, so I’m just calling them all “tags” and leaving in the quotes whatever word the craft master uses.  Onward!

How can I use character tags?

1. Tags Distinguish Characters

Mr. Butcher says, “When you’re putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you’ll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character. . . . This is a really subtle psychological device, and it is far more powerful than it first seems.”

Distinguishing characters is a tag’s main function, but they can easily multi-task to accomplish other story-telling goals:

2. Tags Can Characterize

Mr. Swain says, “A second function of the tag is to characterize. To that end, fit label to personality.”

3. Tags Can Reveal Backstory

Mr. Stein says, “Markers provide the writer with an opportunity to show the character’s background instead of telling the reader about it.”

“While no marker is an absolute designation of background or class (there are exceptions to almost all of them), the reader will feel a reaction to the markers,” says Mr. Stein.

4. Tags Can Be Used As Red Herrings

In story, a red herring is something that misleads or distracts the reader from the truth, from what’s really going on.  In a mystery, it’s the false clue that leads the sleuth to a wrong conclusion, usually about who did it.

Mr. Swain says, ” In life and in fiction alike, unfairly or not, we do identify people by labels aptly slapped on them by their fellows.  That such labels may be wrong, of course, goes almost without saying. Externals are handy indeed, but they may distort or contradict what’s going on inside a person…Not too often, though, or you’ll confuse your readers.”

In other words, if you’re using tags to mislead the reader on purpose–awesome, but beware of tags misleading the reader unintentionally.

5. Tags Can Point to Contradictions

Mr. Swain touched on this when he said that tags can “contradict what’s going on inside a person.”

Ms. Kress also suggests choosing details that highlight the contradictions within a character.

What can be used as a tag?

Mr. Swain says, “Any item that strikes a distinctive note will do . . .”

1. Appearance

Appearance means that it might be nice if your readers had at least some idea of what each character looks like,” says Mr. Swain.

2. Ability

Mr. Swain says, “[T]hrust Character into situations that will give her the opportunity to show the stuff she’s made of before a crisis arises, so your readers won’t be taken aback when Character behaves the way you need her to.”

3. Speech

“Perhaps the most frequently used marker is found in the vocabulary and expressions of a character’s dialogue,” says Mr. Stein.

4. Manner and Mannerisms

“Manner is, of course, an individual’s personal bearing; his or her habitual stance and style,” says Mr. Swain.

5. Attitude or Habits of Behavior

“Attitude is a matter of behavior patterns–a character’s habitual way of reacting to a particular kind of situation,” says Mr. Swain.

He says, “be aware that people do develop distinctive ways of reacting to life’s demands, and that these reaction patterns tend to become habitual. To this end, you need to ask yourself how you want a given person to behave in a particular kind of situation.”

Mr. Stein says, “Public conduct with children is an immediate marker.”

6. Choices and Preferences

“Food, drink, and the places they are consumed are markers,” says Sol Stein. “Even the transportation used by a character can be a marker.”

Ms. Kress agrees: “[S]o can anything else that your character chooses: car, food, drink, music, books, vacation spots.”

Is there a method to picking tags?

Yes, and they’ll be the subjects of later posts on Characterization and Choosing Details.  (If you want to be sure you get them, you can subscribe to the blog feed here.)

Until then, I leave you with this method from Sol Stein: “I have sometimes found that even accomplished writers neglect to ask themselves some fundamental questions about their important characters that could provide useful markers.  For instance, what trait inherited by the protagonist has most influenced his adult life? What custom of the protagonist’s family still haunts his life?  Which personal habit has he tried to break, unsuccessfully, for years?  What family tradition has had the most positive influence on the protagonist?  What is the single most important factor in the villain’s upbringing that contributed to his reprehensible conduct?”

How many tags do I need?

Mr. Swain says, “Choose two or three items per major character, probably, since you’re going to have to use each several times in order to keep readers reminded that Character” is the guy with this particular tag, not that tag.

Mr. Swain also says, “Sometimes, one or two tags for a given character are enough. . . . But if a character is going to play a major part, constant reference to his wavy hair or bulging eyes or grimy nails eventually will get to be a bore. Solution? More tags. Often, you’ll find it desirable to use labels of all [six] types for a single individual…maybe even several of each.”

Ms. Kress says, “‘A few’ is not an absolute concept; there is no magic number. It depends on the length of the work and the importance of the character. More important than the number of details is their ability to add up to a coherent, interesting whole that says what you wish.”

Last Bits of Advice

1. “The key thing to remember about tags is that their primary purpose is to distinguish…to separate one character from another in your reader’s eyes,” says Mr. Swain. “Don’t duplicate tags.” Also, remember “the importance of contrast where tags are concerned.”

2. “Do bring on tags in action,” says Mr. Swain.  Or, in other words, show the tags in action, don’t just tell the reader that they exist.

3. “Do wave tags often. Don’t assume that your reader will remember a character from page to page. Focus attention on your [character’s] tags, his labels, whenever he appears,” says Mr. Swain.

4. Some details make for “poor markers because they are too complex to describe succinctly,” says Mr. Stein. “A marker should convey its point instantly.”

Top Books on Character Tags

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Well, that’s it for me

What about you?  What sorts of character-distinguishing techniques have you seen used–or have developed yourself?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up next, in two Wednesdays

We’ll look at how some of the master storytellers use tags to help us keep their bazillion characters straight.  See you then!


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