Tag Archives: personality traits

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.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Bring ‘Em On!

It’s one thing to spend time thinking about your cast of characters–especially your primary roles of protagonist and antagonist. You design them. You add nuance and dimension to their personalities. You give them flaws and virtues. You choose their eye color, whether they have any distinguishing birthmarks, and how tall they are. You give them limps and quirks. You decide one will possess superpowers. You make another a mutant outcast. You cook up backgrounds, nefarious pasts, abused childhoods, prison sentences, or stints serving as a mercenary in Africa. You choose who is redeemable and who will fall into the pit of destruction.

Yes, spending time on character design is tremendous fun. But once you’ve done all that, plus assigned each cast member a dominant impression, it’s another thing to insert that character into your story in a unique and memorable way.

Don’t be stymied. Instead, go a bit theatrical.

Ever attend a play that’s had a successful run for a long period of time? The star–or a popular second lead–enters with extra panache. The audience roars with delight. The play pauses until the audience recovers from its outburst and settles down again. It might be only for a few seconds, but the experienced actor waits–teetering on the finely edged balance of maintaining character while acknowledging the cheers and applause. The actor has learned how to make an entrance with flair, and the audience loves it.

So, also, should your prose character make a dramatic entrance. You want your lead character especially to attract reader attention and interest. But even secondary characters can stand out in a story by the way they are brought in.

Avoid sneaking your characters into the story with next to no tags, without a name, with nothing that will make them ignite reader imagination. What’s the point of such a mousy story person? If you’re trying to be realistic, then you should understand that in prose realism equates to boring. What you want instead of realistic is plausible or credible. Just remember that those qualities do not cancel flamboyant, vibrant, and colorful.

Now there are multiple ways of introducing characters:

Description works okay if it’s brief, focused on dominant impression, and vivid, but it requires breaking viewpoint if used for the protagonist.

Introduction through presentation of habitat works for certain genres such as mysteries, where the sleuth prowls around a suspect’s home or work space with a search warrant. It can supply readers with a different perspective or insight into the character.

Discussion of a character about to enter the story for the first time works occasionally in humor or if it’s dramatically important to create reader curiosity and anticipation regarding the character yet to appear. In humorous stories, often an unreliable character will say disparaging comments in an effort to force a negative opinion about the person being introduced. Then, when the new character does appear, readers can see that the information related in dialogue is false. This is very much a specialized introduction method and not one that can be used often.

Introduction through character action can be memorable, dramatically charged, vivid, and effective. It is where the character comes onto the page like a stage actor:  exaggerated, tags waving, strongly presented, doing some action that is characteristic of his or her personality yet also advances the story.

Such entry action is unique to the individual and creates a lasting first impression compatible with the dominant impression you want to establish in your readership’s minds.

For example:  let’s say we want to introduce a character named Randolph. We have designed him to be timid, unassertive, nervous with his boss, easily intimidated, kind, intelligent, and risk-adverse. We have decided that Randolph–while brilliant at his job–becomes hopelessly inarticulate and ineffectual when face-to-face with his manager.

Here we have a dimensional character possessing some contradictory qualities. We want to introduce him memorably. What should we focus on first? His smarts and efficiency? Or his nervous babbling in meetings?

The answer is that it depends on two factors:  Randolph’s story role and the dominant impression you want to convey.

If, for example, the dominant impression is brilliant but underappreciated, then you need to show Randolph at work in his corporate cubicle, finishing up a successful CAD design that will shine in tomorrow’s presentation and finally convince his boss that Randolph belongs on the team.

However, if the dominant impression is twitchy fool, then you would introduce Randolph in an inept, stammering conversation with his boss that has him dropping his folder of papers, scrambling on the floor to recover them, knocking over the waste can, and failing to describe his design in a convincing manner.

The only way character entry action fails to make a memorable impression is when a writer is too timid in utilizing the technique. Whatever qualities you assign a character, exaggerate them. Be bold. Be large. Don’t mute a character because you’re unsure of yourself. Err on the side of vividness.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized