Character Tags

08 Mar

The last week or so has been busy to say the least. Sunny southern California looses something when the only time you are outside is to drive from the hotel to the office and back with just enough time to grab a quick dinner and collapse into unconsciousness. The upside of the business trip was the seven and a half hours of plane travel.

Yes, if you follow this blog and you were at the Lindberg Terminal, you know that I was the strange man watching you and taking notes on the way you dress and your behavior. There are some real interesting people out there. 🙂  Now back to the flights.

Having spent two hours collecting “data”, the task before me was to create two in-depth characters. Core personality types soon were expanded to include: family histories, tragic situations, love languages, physical looks, costumes, education, etc. All told there is twenty to thirty pages of notes for each character. This page count will go up dramatically as the writing unfolds. However, it is a good start.

Somewhere over Nebraska, at 36,000 feet, it struck me. From all of this material, what six or seven words or phrases would I use as tags for the characters.  Those descriptive words that help the reader identify who the players are. How do we as writers decide what, of the volumes of physical description, psychological detail, back story, and personal background will we use to create a vivid image in the reader’s mind? Tags are the physical descriptors. I will discuss Traits in a later post.

Physically descriptive tags can create a cliche’. For example: a witch with a wart on her nose, a pointed hat, a broomstick, poison apple, and a black cat familiar. How many stories have you read where the villan has beady eyes and wears black clothes? Or, how about the villan’s bodyguard is a hulking brut with the IQ of a slug and hands like meat cleavers? What turns my stomach is the hero with blond hair, blue eyes, strong chin, six-pack abs.

However, tags can also give the character…well…character. Doesn’t the villan become more disturbing when he looks like the boy next door, wears designer clothes, and is a great cook to boot? The fact that dinner consists of the census taker’s liver and farver beans just adds more flavor to the story. 🙂 Why can’t the hero have a wicked scar across her face, a crippled leg and dress in thrift store cast offs?. The hero in one detective show I watched as a child was short, always wore a rumpled trench coat, smoked a cigar, and came across as extremely forgetful. Yet, he always figured out who the murderer was and usually got a confession.

Try to stay away from the cliché’s unless you have a very good reason. To me, cliché’s are boring. I have the attention span of a gnat when I read. If I get bored during the entrance of the main characters, the chances of my finishing the book are slim at best,  

So, use the volumes of character details you have worked so hard on and pick out the most unusual descriptors you have. If you don’t have anything that is unique, go back to the airport and sit there until you do. It should take you all of about two minutes.

Now that you have six or seven interesting  tags, use them. Not just the first time you introduce the character, but often throughout your story. I am not saying to use all six every time the character shows up. but, one or two inserted within the action, help your reader create a picture in their head. When you are finished reading this post, go pick up a book where you really liked the characters and find where the main character is introduced. Look for the tags the author uses. Then flip back a chapter or two and see what tags the author is using. Are they the same tags? Go back a few more chapters and see if the tags are still being used. I will bet you a magic acorn that the author is using the same tags throughout the story. The repetition reinforces the character’s image.

Take a look at your current project and see if adding a few tags will help bring color to your story. Let me know if it works for you.

In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about traits which are the psychological and action descriptors that really bring your character to life.


Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Other Strangeness


Tags: , , , , , , ,

14 responses to “Character Tags

  1. Christopher Patterson

    March 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Was that short, crumpled coat wearing detective Columbo? Characters are very important, if not the most important, and as an aspiring writer I am always looking for tips and pointers. Thanks for the advice.

    • Dennis Langley

      March 8, 2012 at 7:43 pm

      “A…sorry to interupt but one more thing I don’t understand…” Great character. Stay tuned for the “traits” post early next week.
      Thanks for stopping by. Don’t be a stranger.

  2. obiwannabe

    March 8, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    My villains always wear frog-print capris.

    • Dennis Langley

      March 8, 2012 at 7:39 pm

      Ah-ha. Thay all live near the swamp. That makes perfect sense. Beware the avenging egret!

      • obiwannabe

        March 8, 2012 at 8:00 pm

        Egrets are undervalued nemesis-material.

      • Dennis Langley

        March 8, 2012 at 8:21 pm

        Stealthy little buggers.

  3. annewoodman

    March 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    Good post, Dennis. I agree about the tags… and would add that tags even for slightly more minor characters are helpful. I find that some writers forget to make their supporting cast as colorful as the main characters.

    • Dennis Langley

      March 8, 2012 at 7:37 pm


      Absolutely, a few simple tags can make a flat supoorting cast much more real.

  4. Sara Flower

    March 9, 2012 at 12:06 am

    Great post about real characters. So true!

    • Dennis Langley

      March 12, 2012 at 1:37 am


      Thanks for stopping by and your kind comment.

  5. NormaJean Lutz

    March 9, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    I learned early on that the study of psychology is a great asset to novel writing. You seem to support that idea in this post. Great insight here. Makes me want to get busy and do a little characterization work! :^)

    • Dennis Langley

      March 12, 2012 at 1:39 am


      It is a area that I recently stumbled into that seems to help. Thank you for your supporting comments.



    March 11, 2012 at 2:46 am


    • Dennis Langley

      March 12, 2012 at 1:35 am

      Thanks for stopping by Tom. I appraciate your support.


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