In November’s sporadic posts, I’ve written about character design and introduction. But all that hard work and long thought aren’t sufficient. You can build the most vivid character ever, with an outstanding dominant impression and tags galore. You can introduce Mr. Wow into the story with an explosion and a stunt, and it still isn’t enough.
At this point, are you thinking, What more do readers want? Blood?
Let’s not be quite that dramatic. What readers want is character reinforcement.
In other words, you don’t allow readers to forget a character’s dominant impression. You don’t allow them to forget Mr. Wow’s personality. You don’t allow them to forget how special and vivid Mr. Wow is. Again and again, at key points in the story progression you should reestablish, reinforce, and reiterate.
Reestablish a character that’s been off the page for a while. I do this through a miniature introduction or description. Even though readers may vaguely remember this character that’s been gone, it helps them if you can provide reminders of appearance, dominant impression, and story role. Naturally not all characters have to be reestablished. For example, if you’re writing a novel about three people stranded in a lifeboat in the Pacific, there’s no need for reestablishment. That would come across as stilted, awkward, and patronizing.
However, let’s say you have a character named Herman that’s been tailing Mr. Wow for half the day. Mr. Wow confronts Herman and discovers that Herman works for a man that wants Mr. Wow to lay off his investigation into a blackmailing scheme. They scuffle, and Mr. Wow knocks Herman out, leaving him in an alley. Four or five chapters later, Herman reappears in the story, this time waiting in Mr. Wow’s office for his return and armed with a .38.
Now, in those intervening four chapters, numerous plot twists, conflict, and new character introductions have occurred. Mr. Wow has barely escaped a warehouse fire, nearly been shot, and fallen in love with a blonde dame at the casino. After so much excitement, readers might dimly remember Herman, or he might be entirely forgotten. So now, with his return, there’s a need to reestablish him. We can do so through a brief description of what he’s wearing. The same tan raincoat with the torn cuff and the same dark brown fedora as before. The same small dark eyes, burning intensely in a narrow face. But let’s remind readers of that alley fight by giving Herman a black eye.
By taking the time to pause the story briefly to give him a miniature reintroduction, readers don’t have to struggle to remember. They’ll get a kick out of the black eye, remembering how Mr. Wow dealt with the little squirt. And they’ll worry about the new element of the .38 and the resentment in Herman’s face.
We reinforce characterization frequently through the usage of tags. Tags, if you recall, are little attachments of character information. We have many types at our disposal. There are tags of physical appearance, tags of behavior and mannerisms, tags of possessions/clothing, tags that show personality, tags of vocabulary or dialogue patterns, and the character’s name with all its connotations.
Why do we need so many? So that we can reinforce often without numbing readers. A rule I try to follow is to use at least one tag per character per page.
I’ll repeat that: at least one tag per character per page.
Does this mean that I’m going to mention Mr. Wow’s steely gaze in every paragraph? No. Let’s say that Mr. Wow wears custom-made suits that are very expensive. He stands about six feet, five inches. He has thick auburn hair and gray eyes, an aristocratic nose, and a rugged jaw. He drives a Porsche Cayenne SUV–gunmetal gray with black leather interior. He speaks softly but seriously and never says anything he doesn’t mean. He’s smart, tough, successful, resourceful, cool-headed, and ruthless if he has to be.
Now, consider this:
“My boss says to lay off, see, or me and my pals will be forced to rough you up. Unnerstand? Hey, you hearin’ me?”
Mr. Wow had been sizing up the pugnacious punk during the threats and bluster. He’d also inched closer to the spokesman, who maybe came up to his shoulder and had a dished-in face with a nose broken too many times. No one so far had pulled a gun or a shiv, and despite the wooden billy-club in the punk’s hand, Mr. Wow dismissed the trio as amateurs.
He struck without warning, landing a punch that cracked lumpy cartilage and broke the punk’s nose once more. Blood spurted, and with a howl the punk reeled back, dropping his club to clutch his face.
Mr. Wow finished him with an uppercut and spun lightly to face the other two. They stared at him, wide-eyed, and ran.
Dusting off his hands, Mr. Wow checked his silk shirt cuffs for any blood splatter and pulled down the sleeves of his gray woolen suit. It was new, shipped by courier from his Savile Row tailor only yesterday. One of the individual buttonholes on the right sleeve seemed maybe an eighth of an inch out of line with the others. His tailor was getting sloppy. Mr. Wow stared down at his groaning, would-be assailant without expression, stepped over him, and walked out to the curb. Getting into his Cayenne, Mr. Wow drove away without a backward glance. It was time to deal with the punk’s boss.
Never mind that I’m having fun by using every cliched, hard-boiled trope from the golden age of crime fiction, look at how I’ve reinforced the information I want readers to remember. While all the details that I mentioned above in that one-paragraph dossier aren’t used in my italicized example, they don’t need to be because Mr. Wow would have been introduced earlier in the story. But from his name, to his height, to his dapper taste in clothes, to his physicality, and all the way down to his polished toecaps, Mr. Wow’s tags are plentiful enough to be rotated and used in different combinations.
If nothing else, adhere to the tag rule by using a character’s name instead of relying on pronouns. The name tag is the most useful of all types, yet because it’s so functional inexperienced writers sometimes forget it. Why use “he” when you can use “Mr. Wow.”
Reiterate characterization without repetition. Reiterate through utilizing new combinations and ways of showing the information to readers. Show your character’s personality through a variety of actions that all work to convey the same impression.
This is sometimes referred to as using a “tag cluster.” For example, if you want to convey the personality trait of cool-headed, think about what behaviors and reactions will show it.
From the above example, Mr. Wow demonstrates this trait through his calmness when cornered by three thugs armed with clubs. He coolly assesses them, guessing that they haven’t done time or they would be armed differently. He also determines that they are more bluff than true danger. He does not let being outnumbered concern him. He strikes a strategic blow–one as psychologically damaging as it is physically painful–and shows no emotion whatsoever.
How do we reiterate this trait? By demonstrating it in different action the next time. Let’s say that when he pays his bill at the casino that evening, his card is declined. There have been no text alerts on his phone, yet when he checks his bank he learns his account has been frozen. Again, by showing him calm, intelligent, alert, savvy, and unemotional as he deals with financial sabotage, his cool-headed trait is shown anew.