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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

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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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Awesome Moms in YA Fiction

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The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones - Cassandra Clare - Lily Collins - Lena Headey - Jocelyn Fray - Clary Fray - Novel Conclusions writing blog

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones movie poster via Google Images

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to pay tribute to 3 awesome moms in fiction.  Especially in YA fiction, moms with really deep connections to the heart of the story seem to be everywhere.  We frequently run across loving, intelligent mom characters (although sometimes they are not – that’s a different blog post), but what makes them integral to the story?

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mom Mrs. Murry is brilliant and understanding and cooks dinner on her Bunsen burner.  Although Mrs. Murry is not a main character by any stretch of the imagination, her presence in the story is a constant reminder to the characters, while lost on their journey, that they have something to come home to, something to strive for.  The mother character plays a key role in thematically representing home.

In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling masterfully uses Harry’s mother Lily to evoke certain emotions in him.  We know very early on (so I don’t consider this a spoiler) that Lily died to protect Harry.  As we get further into the series, we learn more bits and pieces about Harry’s mother as Harry learns them.  Lily gradually becomes a more well-rounded character, and she comes to strongly represent love, something Professor Dumbledore is always bringing to Harry’s (reluctant) attention.  Lily’s love for Harry becomes the key that helps him to unlock a variety of things that I won’t get into because they would involve spoilers.  I would like to note that this is, of course, much clearer in the books than in the movies.

In Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (soon to be a super fun movie!), main character Clary finds out in short order that her mom, Jocelyn, was keeping some intense secrets – and that she was keeping some of those secrets to protect Clary from a seriously unpleasant fate.  Though Jocelyn has quite a bit more going on, story-wise, than the moms mentioned above, she wants to protect Clary above all else.  Even as a secondary character, her relationship with Clary helps drive the plot.  Her guardedness about her past acts as a foil to Clary’s openness and naiveté about the Shadowhunter world.  In addition to this, despite all the secrets, Clary still loves her mother dearly, and her mother still represents home to her in this new existence.

To sum up, what makes these awesome moms integral to their respective stories?  These moms help create some fantastic thematic depth to each of these stories.  Now, done poorly, mommy characters can be flat as Kansas, but done well, mother characters help their kiddos to shine as main characters.

What are some other well-written mom characters you’ve come across?  How did they affect their kids story-wise?

Finding Character Motives

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We’ve all heard what a motivation is, but how do we find our character’s motive?

Characters and their motives focus a story.  What is a character fighting for or against?  Although not true in all cases, most stories can be stripped down to be rooted in love (fighting for) or fear (fighting against).

A Wrinkle in Time

Courtesy of Amazon.com

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg is fighting to find her father and bring him home — a motive based in love, her love for her father and her family.  Though quite a few twists hop in front of this motive, her desire to bring her father home and reunite her family gets the story going.

In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, though the love story has gotten the headlines (and really, who doesn’t love Rhett Butler?), Scarlett’s primary motive is survival — surviving the war, surviving General Sherman’s fire, surviving the way her family’s land has been ravaged, surviving heartbreak. She is fighting against humiliation, starvation, and death — a motive based in fear, at least at first.

Love and fear need not be narrowly defined by familial or romantic love or fear of death or physical pain; they can be more basic, like love of a home or love of honor, fear of shame or humiliation.  What other books stick out immediately as being rooted in love or fear?

P.S.  Check out the graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time (adapted by Hope Larson) here.

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