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Character Tags in Fiction and Why They’re Fantastic

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Ned Stark Game of Thrones - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - character tags

Sean Bean as Ned Stark via Google Images

In most memorable books you read, the characters hold distinct places in your memory.  Why is this?  Outside of the overarching plot, what makes characters stand out in our minds?  Character tags help with this immensely.  A character tag is a physical way of being that the character comes back to time and again.  Character tags could be:

  • A common phrase or verbal tic
  • A way of speaking
  • An accent or dialect
  • A physical mannerism
  • A way of carrying themselves
  • A scent
  • A recurring behavior
  • Etc.

For example, in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, 6-year-old Charles Wallace speaks incredibly clearly and calmly and in complete sentences, much more so than the average person.  As a result, even when dialogue tags are scarce, we know when Charles Wallace is speaking.  This also works well because of the contrast it provides to the other main characters.  He works as a foil for his impulsive, belligerent sister Meg.  L’Engle weaves these characters masterfully in a way that helps us relate to both of them.

In Rachel Ward’s Numbers, teenage Spider presents a fantastic example.  Spider moves constantly, restless, and this comes up again and again.  Our narrator Jem describes him as

“He’s big, Spider, tall.  One of those people who stand too close to you, doesn’t know when to back off.  Suppose that’s why he gets into fights at school.  He’s in your face all the time, you can smell him.  Even if you twist and turn away, he’s still there – doesn’t read the signs at all, never takes the hint.”

This becomes a character tag rather than just a description because we see Spider doing these things over and over again.  These mannerisms embed themselves into the story.  You also definitely want to walk the thin line of not using the character tags too much, or you can fall into the accidental comedy category.

Character tags become especially important in ensemble series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.  In the Harry Potter series, even though Ernie MacMillan only pops up a couple times in each book, we know who he is because of the proud way he carries himself.  It’s his primary character tag.  In the Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones), keeping the crazy amount of characters straight is only possible because George RR Martin can throw down character tags like no one’s business.  Ned Stark (not to mention many of the other Northerners in the series) is always saying “Winter is coming” like a mantra.  If someone utters that phrase, we know we’re talking to Stark or one of his people.

What do these character tags do?

  • They make characters more memorable and distinguishable (making the story more interesting).
  • They tell us something about the character.
  • They make the character more real for the reader.
  • They help create tension between characters.

What are good character tags you’ve run across?  What do you think character tags do for a story?

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About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

14 responses

  1. I used character tags in my novel but I didn’t know what they were called. See, this is the second thing I have learned today from my WP friends and it’s not even 9am.

  2. I didn’t know what they were called either until I read this post and one of the others you listed. I can’t help thinking of Miss Bates in Jane Austen’s EMMA. She twitters on with her “So obliging of you!” and “You are extremely kind.” You can look at a huge paragraph on a page and know that Mis Bates is speaking, especially a paragraph full of repetive statements.

  3. I just saw the movie ‘Prisoners’ (great film, by the way), so I’ll use that as my example since it’s the first thing that came to mind. Jake Gyllenhaal’s detective character blinks rapidly when he’s stressed. Nowhere is this said in the movie, but we see it when he’s facing a stressful situation. It was a great tag, and it told us something about the character without ever using words. Obviously, words are needed in a novel, but that’s where the show vs. tell comes in.

    Another great post. I love how you explore topics beyond the usual writing tips.

    • I haven’t seen Prisoners yet, but that’s a great example of a character tag.

      Thanks for also enjoying the atypical writing topics I like to explore! :-)

  4. I never thought of this trick as having a name, but yay for sometimes doing the right stuff even if you don’t know what it’s called! XD I can think of a handful of my characters right off the bat who’ve revealed tags to me without my even having to search them out. Very obliging of them, to be so naturally distinctive. Guess it’s something I’ll have to actually keep in mind for the rest.

  5. This is informative and helpful for me as a writer. I try to develop unique and interesting characters, but have not thought so much about ‘tags’ great thoughts.

    I just started reading your blog but it seems you take a creative and unique approach to writing. I look forward to future posts by you.

  6. Your post comes at just the right time, Christi. I’ve been editing my novel and thinking hard about how to make the characters more engaging. I think more tags could help, so thank you!

    The thing about tags is, they do seem to be what I remember about books I love. For instance, in Ordinary Ghosts by Eireanne Corrigan, the main character’s love interest blows on her bangs, making them flutter, when she’s stumped or thinking. It is a seemingly insignificant gesture, but somehow so human – so real. And it ends up being what I remember. Likewise, in Alison Goodman’s fantasy epic Eona, the handsome emperor (Eona’s love interest) is described as fingering his long bejeweled braid when he’s nervous (usually when he’s trying to win Eona’s affections). Again, simple, yet vivid and memorable.

    Quick question: Do you think tags like this are as important for the main character? One of the related posts you link to suggests it’s mostly a device for secondary characters. My main character has interests and a clear take on the world, but not a single tag, which could be a problem. Just wondering.

  7. I do think tags are important for a main character and help the MC to be memorable (think Jack Sparrow vs. a random pirate in the same situation); they just tend to stand out more with secondary characters because the secondary characters don’t have as much going on. Character tags can be subtle, too, like how Katniss is cool and collected when others are freaking out, or how Wrinkle in Time’s Meg always seems to be pushing her glasses into place, or how the shepherd in The Alchemist tends to speak and think in simple sentences. A tag doesn’t have to be blatant; you probably already have some subtle tags for your main character already, perhaps a frequently mentioned way of how she views the world.

  8. Pingback: Packing Emotional Punch: Connecting with Readers | Novel Conclusions

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