Character Tags: How the Masters Use Them

We’re looking at character tags.  Here’s how some of the master story tellers help us remember who their characters are.

Jim Butcher’s Dresden series
Harry Dresden is a practicing wizard who hires out as a detective.  Jim Butcher has said that he consciously creates tags and traits for his characters to help readers identify them.

In Butcher’s own words, “Thomas Raith’s tag words are pale, beautiful, dark hair, grey eyes. I use them when I introduce him for the first time in each book, and then whenever he shows up on stage again, I remind the reader of who he is by using one or more of those words. . . .

“Harry’s traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. . . .

“Bob the Skull’s traits are the skull, its eyelights, his intelligence, his role as a lab assistant, his obsession with sex and his wiseass dialog.”

One of my favorite of Jim Butcher’s tags is the tag for Gentleman Johnny Marcone.  He has eyes the color of money.  I think I’ve even read it as dirty money.  Even if I haven’t read a Dresden novel in a while, when I hear this, I always remember, oh yeah, that’s Chicago’s super wealthy mob boss.

His name helps place him, too.  (We’ll do names in an upcoming post.  To make sure you get it, click here.)

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.
Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter who goes after skips.  In addition to the series characters, each story generally has three or four skips plus all the leads, the peripheral people who know the skips.

I never remember who all these skips and leads are, and, let’s face it, you don’t really need to.  We don’t read Stephanie Plum for the plot; we read it for the fantastically funny dialogue.  (And Janet Evanovich must know this, because I swear 80% of her word count occurs between quotation marks.)

And yet, Ms. Evanovich makes sure that we know exactly who she’s talking about.

Exhibit A:  Hardcore Twenty-Four.  I’m currently a little over halfway through the book, and Stephanie and her friend, Lula, are looking for a skip named Johnny.

Whoever that is.

Lula asks if they’re going to stop by the gym where Johnny hangs out, and Stephanie says,

“No. . . . I’m going to take another look at little Pinkie’s house, and then I’m going to talk to the ex wife.”

– pg 143

The ex-wife . . . who’s that again?

Well, Evanovich reminds us right away.  She has Lula say,

“I like that plan. I’m interested in the ex-wife. What would possess a woman to take up painting gnomes? . . .”

– pg 143

Right!  The gnome lady.  We’ve seen her yard full of gnomes before, but we haven’t met her yet.

And did you notice Little Pinkie?  That’s a guy who has a stub for a pinkie on his left hand.  Oh yeah, that guy.  Do I remember anything else about him?  No, not really, but I feel like I do.  And as a reader, that feeling is important.  I only know that I don’t remember anything else about him, because I’m writing this post . . . and I can’t remember anything else about him.  The page I’m currently on says he owns the gym.  Okay, sure.

I read a couple more pages, and Evanovich reminds me (again, I realize) who this Johnny guy is.  His ex wife says,

“Maybe he [Johnny] should double up on his underwear in the place that counts, instead of wearing a pair on his head.”

– pg 147

Right!  Johnny’s the guy who wears tighty-whities on his head like a ski-mask.  He can’t see very well through them, and that’s how he got caught. Yeah, yeah, I remember that guy.

Janet Evanovich:  Master of character tags.

(And of dialogue. Definitely a master of dialogue.)

Subhuman, by Michael McBride
This was the book that prompted this post on tags.  McBride introduces several characters, and the only ones I remembered and could distinguish later were (i) a girl whose tag was fretting her fingers, a nervous tick that prompted her interest in seismology, and (ii) a guy whose tags/traits were being quiet and observant and who noticed anything in the setting that needed noticing, per the plot.

Unfortunately, during the last third of the book, Fretting-Fingers Girl became the girl with streaks in her hair.  What color, I can’t remember.  I think McBride did this–selected another tag for her–because he was trying to establish a connection between Fretting-Fingers Girl and a secondary character, who was just now, in the last third of the book, getting to be the point of view character of a scene.  And what that POV character noticed about Fretting Fingers Girl was her hair, not her nervous tick–because he liked her.

Use of this tag would have been fine if Fretting Fingers Girl had always been the girl with fretting fingers and with streaked hair–but she wasn’t.  Her hair might’ve been mentioned in her first scene, but it definitely wasn’t mentioned during the whole middle of the book.  As a result, hearing so much about her streaked hair in the last third (and wondering why her hair was all of a sudden so important) really threw me out of the story.

Although, after reading Hardcore Twenty-Four, I wonder if the problem was partly due to “streaked hair” being an unmemorable tag.

Like wearing underwear on your head, fretting your fingers is a memorable tag. Hair color maybe not so much.

Also, in addition to being visually distinctive, these two memorable tags are also active and indicative of character.  Underwear man uses his underwear to hide his face when he robs places.  Fretting Fingers Girl has had this condition for as long as she can remember, and it led to her interest and expertise in seismology, which is why she was picked for the job.  Her hair had nothing to do with this, and has nothing much to do with anything in the plot (until the end, when this character who seems to like her refers to her by her hair).

Take-away:  To create super memorable tags, make them visually distinctive, make them active, and make that activity relevant to the plot and/or to who the character is.

Second take-away: Know your tags. Plant them early, use them often, and don’t muddy them later with new tags.


Well, that’s it for me.  What about you?  What tags have you noticed in the stories you’re reading.  Tell us in the comments!


We’ll see if we can come up with some “super memorable tags” for the characters in the stories we’re developing.  (Hopefully I’ll be able to channel my inner Janet Evanovich.)  See you then!

So... whadaya think?

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