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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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Libba Bray’s Gorgeous Characterization

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Libba Bray - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty

How is it that Libba Bray makes her characters so achingly real?  I’ve talked a bit about character motives and character quirks in the past, and there are always more avenues to explore in characterization.

I’ve recently been reading Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy, which begins with A Great and Terrible Beauty.  The cover, a young girl in a corset, threw me off when I first saw it, as it looks like some silly romance; however, I had heard some great things about Libba Bray and was intrigued by the book blurb.  Generally, I can read the first couple paragraphs of a book and decide if I want to buy it; A Great and Terrible Beauty passed this test and pulled me right into the mystery.

The character Felicity gives us a wonderful example of Bray’s ability to create realistic, dynamic characters.  Felicity, first introduced as a bit of an antagonist, grows into one of the most complex characters in the trilogy.  This is hinted at when she jumps dramatically onto the page:

Her white-blond hair is arranged neatly in a bun, as young ladies must wear their hair, but even so, it seems a bit wild, as if the pins won’t really hold it.  Arched eyebrows frame small, gray eyes in a face so pale it’s almost the color of an opal.  She’s amused at something, and she tosses her head back and laughs heartily, without trying to stifle it.  Even though the dark-haired girl is perfect and lovely, it’s the blond who gets the attention of everyone in the room.  She’s clearly the leader.

What did Bray do here that characterizes Felicity?

  • Shows the character in action
  • Points out telling details of her appearance
  • Shows the way others react to her

In just a paragraph, and without stopping the scene to describe the character, Bray creates a dynamic, fluid picture in our minds.  One of the most important things here is showing the way others react to a character, something often overlooked.

What other strong characters stand out to you?  What makes those characters stand out?

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The Evocative Sense of Smell

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The Lightning Thief - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Courtesy of bn.com

Writers frequently overlook the sense of smell to focus primarily on sight.  Smell, however, packs a much tighter emotional punch; our sense of smell is associated very closely with the part of the brain that processes emotion.  Aroma, fragrance, odor — whatever you’d like to call it — can frequently unlock memories and associations for both your characters and your readers, if used with finesse.

Where some authors skip over the most emotional of our five senses, some use it to great effect.  Vastly different writing styles can use the sense of smell to set the stage, reveal character, or move the plot forward.  Within the first few paragraphs of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood incorporates scent to set the scene in an old, empty gymnasium:

A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls.

Atwood creates a feeling and uses this feeling to build curiosity.  Where exactly is the narrator, and why is she here?  We as readers want to know why we are here and where we are going, and in creating that curiosity, Atwood achieves an enviable goal.

Another example of scent working for a story comes up in a completely different book — but also a book that I love — The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  Riordan uses scent to build the character of Percy’s step-father, Gabe:

I slammed the door to my room, which really wasn’t my room.  During school months, it was Gabe’s “study.”  He didn’t study anything in there except old car magazines, but he loved shoving my stuff in the closet, leaving his muddy boots on my windowsill, and doing his best to make the place smell like his nasty cologne and cigars and stale beer.

I dropped my suitcase on the bed.  Home sweet home.

Gabe’s smell was almost worse than the nightmares about Mrs. Dodds, or the sound of that old fruit lady’s shears snipping the yarn.

Riordan gives us a feel for Gabe’s character and tells us something that will be very important to the plot later (though I won’t spoil it for you by revealing that bit).  Gabe acts as a foil to Percy and his mother, Sally, showing us more about Percy and Sally purely through their reactions to him and interactions with him.

However, in order to use scent efficiently, we can’t just toss on a few extra olfactory descriptors.  The use of scent needs to pull its weight within the story.  Does your use of scent in your writing pull its weight?  Does it reveal character, plot, or important background information?  Does it create curiosity or build an important feeling?  If it doesn’t do these things, maybe it doesn’t belong there.

Have you read anything where the sense of smell stands out or plays an important role?  Which scents bring back memories for you?

P.S.  Check out a fun interview of Rick Riordan from Saturday’s Guardian here.

Description that Jumps off the Page

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The Midwife of Venice - Novel Conclusions - Description in Writing

Courtesy of bn.com

As writers, we always want to weave our description into the story just enough to make it vivid but not so much as to slow the story down.  While Dickens may have been able to get away with an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House, modern authors usually can’t get away with that and still sell books.

We frequently hear about including the senses in our writing, but we need to remember to include descriptors that have a purpose.  Does it create a mood?  Does it tell us something important about our characters?  Does it move the plot forward?  Is it important later in the story?  Maybe the image of a gorgeous orange leaf floating down to a pond captivates your imagination as an author, but does it make sense for the story you’re writing?  If your character is zipping by that leaf at 60 miles per hour on her way to a family member’s death bed, perhaps that’s not the moment for that particular image.

Roberta Rich sets the scene and the mood and drops us right in the midst of the story with the very beginning of The Midwife of Venice:

Ghetto Nuovo, Venice
1575

At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice.  The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin.  Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters.  Through the mist rising from the canal, the cries and grunts of foraging pigs echo.  Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous.

It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.

In less than a hundred words, we know these things:

  • It is an odd time; something must be wrong.
  • Hannah lives in the super ghetto.  Literally.
  • Something creepy is about to happen.

The author gave us all of this information without telling us directly.  She uses multiple senses to show us the environment, set the eerie mood, and drop hints that something is about to happen, all at a bridge that comes up in the story again and again.  She pulls the reader in.

What have you read recently where the description jumps off the page?  What do you think makes for good description?

Related Info:

  • Check out an in-depth review of The Midwife of Venice here.  Like the reviewer, I also think it’s pretty cool that the book shows both good and bad Jews, Christians, and Muslims — it’s not just one religion versus another.
  • Agent Nathan Bransford has a great post on showing vs. telling here and how “specificity wins.”
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