Tag Archives: character tags

Don’t Forget!

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.

 

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Tag That Character

Character design is one of the more intriguing and fun aspects of the writing process. After all, we can invent our story people to suit ourselves. We can make our hero tall and lithe, our villain capable of tossing deadly wizard fire, and our minions a small army of tiny, red-eyed, spider-folk capable of telepathic communication.

However, design can become a tar pit of pending decisions. Should I give her red hair or blue? Should she have tattoos? If I make her afraid of heights, does that mean my story has to be set in the Alps?

A simple, basic guide to organizing those decisions is to focus on the following basics:

Dominant Impression

Memorable Introduction

Reinforcement

In this post, I’ll focus on dominant impression. This is where you create the appearance, personality, background, and goal of a character then boil it all down to one or two words, such as ruthless killer, sweet innocent, drama queen, clown, diva, swindler, warrior prince, responsible, box-thinker, rule breaker, etc.

If you want to start with a dominant impression and then create the appearance and personality to support it, that’s perfectly fine. But dominant impression keeps the character clear and easy for readers to visualize. It also helps writers stay on track since, when we’re trying to create dimensional characters, we may muddle them unintentionally and fail to achieve the effect we want.

To show dominant impression to readers, we tag our characters by assigning them behaviors, actions, and dialogue that will demonstrate their personality.

For example, if you wish to demonstrate nervous Nellie as a character’s dominant impression, think about this individual’s traits, habits, tics, and behavior. Chronic nervous indicators can include nail biting, fidgeting, clumsiness, restless pacing, pencil gnawing, muttering, rapid-fire speech patterns, and high-pitched laughter.

Each time your character uses one of these indicators (which I call tags of personality), you’ve reminded readers of the dominant impression without author intrusion or telling.

It should be noted that other types of tags include a character’s name, appearance, clothing and possessions, habitat, pattern or style of dialogue, and mannerisms.

Each helps to remind readers of who this character is–distinct and separate from other characters in the cast–while also providing useful information.

While you don’t want to overuse the same tag to the point of exhausting reader patience, a variety of tags should be utilized often. My rule is at least one tag per character per page. Just using the character’s name will satisfy that rule, and if I can reinforce dominant impression at least once on the page then I feel I’m keeping that character vivid and easy for readers to remember.

My next post will address vivid, memorable character introduction.

 

 

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Story Genius: Agatha Christie and Billy Wilder

As many of you know, I’m a rabid old-movie buff. This week was exciting because I showed my students a 1957 courtroom thriller called WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Based on a play by Agatha Christie, the idea was subsequently translated to the screen by genius writer/director/producer Billy Wilder. Christie supplied the plot and the dynamite twists; Wilder fleshed out her characters. (I think I read somewhere that Christie was paid about $450,000 for the film rights. Not bad in 1950s-era money! Even today’s money would do.)

Over the years, whenever I have coached students wanting to write a courtroom drama, nine times out of ten they make the same mistake:  they establish the defendant as their protagonist. In theory, this should work. After all, the protagonist is supposed to have the most at stake and be at the heart of the story.

Well, the defendant has the most at stake, but otherwise is stuck passively in a jail cell, unable to drive the story action. Therefore, the defendant can not be an effective protagonist.

In WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the protagonist is Sir Wilfrid, an experienced and wily defense barrister considered to be the best in the Old Bailey, but he is recovering from a serious heart attack and his health remains uncertain. His doctors have forbidden him to conduct any more defense trials, yet he cannot resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole who has been accused of murder on circumstantial evidence.

Wilder, directing the film, is smart enough to take his time. We don’t meet the accused, Vole, right away. Instead, Sir Wilfrid is introduced first and shown pitted against his nurse who is determined to make him follow doctor’s orders to take it easy, get plenty of rest, and avoid cigars and brandy. Their conflict starts in the first movie frame and continues to arc over the entire duration of the movie. And that arc about whether Sir Wilfrid will achieve his goal of resuming his trial career is the spine of the story. The primary subplot centers on the trial itself and attempts to gather sufficient evidence to exonerate Sir Wilfrid’s client. And although the trial is gripping–not to mention twisty, thanks to the devious imagination of Dame Agatha–it is the characters that make this film stand out.

Therefore, it is these characters that I use as classroom examples of design, introduction, and revelation of true nature. They have vivid and distinctive entry actions, usually in plot conflict or in dramatic contradiction to audience expectation. They wave numerous distinctive tags–e.g. the nurse Miss Plimsoll in her uniform, carrying her small medical bag, wielding her syringe for Sir Wilfrid’s calcium injections; and Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, his wig, his thermos of coco, his pills, and his cigars. Each of them with possibly the exception of the murder victim is designed with complexity. True nature is revealed and concealed in various ways. At first we think of Sir Wilfrid as a sick old man long past his prime, even a bit of a mischievous buffoon who is rude and unnecessarily gruff, but then we learn how intelligent, how clever, how determined to save his client, how wily, and how caring he is. The characters’ clashing goals and motivations bring all of them to life.

Although several characters are introduced through characteristic entry action, some are brought in differently. One such alternative method is through discussion, whereby two characters are talking about a third character about to appear in the story for the first time. The introduction of the defendant’s wife is done through character discussion. Sir Wilfrid, before meeting her, makes an assumption about her that proves to be entirely erroneous the moment she first appears. His mistake emphasizes our dominant impression of her vividly and unforgettably.

The mystery clues are planted through dialogue and character behavior. In watching the film for the first time, you sense something is off and yet you find yourself doubting your judgment. Is it the actor’s performance? Is the character lying? What’s wrong? As Sir Wilfrid says in frustration, “It’s too symmetrical. Something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it!”

I love how the plot is put together. There is comedy and broad exaggeration. There is audience manipulation. There is the buildup of anticipation and the creation of suspense. The two ticking clocks–Sir Wilfrid’s worsening health and the trial’s verdict–keep your attention hooked to the finale. Even the flashback–always a risk to pacing–works beautifully in planting more clues and pointing to motivations.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this film. I don’t care, because every time I am struck anew with how well-written it is, how well-plotted and paced it is, how well-acted it is, and how well-directed it is without any reliance on fancy-schmancy special effects. The sets are limited and very tight–reflecting its origins as a play. I’ve read a modern-day review that pokes a hole in the storyline, criticizing it for allowing Vole to exclaim and interrupt during the trial, but I don’t know enough about British courtroom procedures in the 1950s to understand if this is a valid criticism or not. All I perceive as a writer is that Vole’s comments serve a specific plot purpose, and from that restricted perspective they work.

Beyond my enjoyment of the movie’s skillfully employed techniques, I love the reactions of my students. At first they’re delighted to watch a movie in class instead of sitting through a dull lecture. But then they realize it’s an old movie. Even worse, it’s in black and white. They’ve never heard of any of the actors–Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester–and the cars are weird, the clothes are weird, the setting is a London from an era they don’t recognize so it’s also weird. I watch them stiffen in their seats, rolling their eyes and sighing a little. The movie starts with the comedic bit they find cheesy. I can feel them wishing they could ditch class and check their text messages. I know they’re wondering how long this torture will take.

(This time, one brash young man actually asked me if we were going to watch the whole movie. “Yes,” I replied firmly. “You have to stay with it to the end.”)

And then, as always, there comes that moment when I sense a change in the room. The silent intensity in the class tells me they’re absorbed. I know the movie has grabbed my young students by their throats. They are captured by the story question. They want to know what will happen and how it will turn out. And that capture has nothing to do with technicolor, a soaring soundtrack, special effects, wild stunts, exploding buildings, or CGI. It has everything to do with plot and characters–with story.

And that is what writing should be about.

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Speech Tags

One aspect of writing dialogue is how effective a good speech tag can be in carrying emotion forward through the plot.

In the professional writing program at the University of Oklahoma, we define tags as bits of information attached to characters that make them distinct in some way or provide information to readers. There are multiple kinds of tags: speech tags, mannerisms, physical appearance, tags of personality, etc.

Think of an item of clothing in a department store. You have a tag that lists the fiber content, a tag that states the country of manufacture, a tag that gives the size and price, etc.

In the hands of an inexperienced writer, a speech tag may be nothing more than an overused expression distinctive to its assigned character. For example:

“Why don’t you get off that dratted chair and come help me shift this hay bale?” John demanded.

“You only had to ask me.”

“I shouldn’t have to ask! You dratted boys are all alike. Lazy, shiftless, no-good, dratted lunk-heads, that’s you!”

The awkward repetition of “dratted” wears thin fast. It’s serving no purpose other than to be something John habitually says.

In contrast, an effective speech tag conveys personality, uniqueness, and emotion. It’s a reaction to what’s happening in the story. It may indicate a decision within the character, as well.

Consider the character Will in David Lean’s 1954 comedy, HOBSON’S CHOICE. In this film, Will (played by John Mills) is a shy, semi-literate, inarticulate cobbler. He happens to also be an exceptionally talented shoemaker who’s exploited by his employer, Mr. Hobson. But during the course of the film, Will is pushed beyond his comfort zone and low expectations into becoming the owner of his own business.

Actor John Mills

At key points in the film, Will is struck by his progress. Each time he learns to assert himself, his future opens up to an even bigger and brighter one. And at these important turning points in the story, Will can only express himself by staring wide-eyed and saying, “By … gum!”

It is, in fact, the last line of dialogue in the movie.

Of course, the actor John Mills injects different tones and inflections into that simple phrase, but because “By gum” isn’t overused or mindlessly repeated, it becomes delightful whenever it’s spoken.

Another example of a well-done speech tag comes from Janet Evanovich’s comedic mystery series centered around bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Stephanie fumbles through her investigations with a cast of often zany secondary characters to help or hinder her. One of the two romantic leads is Ranger, a mysterious, dangerous, sexy security expert who sometimes does bounty work with Stephanie. Often, he’s called in to rescue her from a tight spot or to provide her with transportation after her car is blown up. (She loses her car in nearly every book. A different kind of tag.)

Ranger’s speech tag is “Babe.”

If he meets Stephanie for breakfast and he’s eating a tofu wrap and she sits down with a donut, Ranger’s laconic comment of “Babe” indicates his reproachful opinion of her junk-food diet.

If he sees Stephanie splattered in blood or paint, watching the fire department douse her burning car, “Babe” takes on a much gentler, sympathetic connotation.

And if Stephanie’s staying at his place because her apartment door has been kicked in by a goon, when she walks out of the shower in a towel and encounters Ranger in the bedroom, “Babe” can mean anything from admiration to desire.

So, in designing your characters and their styles of expressing themselves, check to see if you’ve given any of them useful speech tags that will personify them, show their emotions, and advance the story.

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