Character Tags in Fiction

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In the parlance of fiction writing, a character tag is a repetitive verbal device used to identify a character in the mind of the reader.

More than a simple description, a character tag calls to mind aspects of the character’s personality and uniqueness.

Uriah Heep’s clammy hands, his constant hand rubbing, and his use of the word “humble” to describe himself and his mother are character tags that make him unforgettable.

Sherlock Holmes and his violin, his shag tobacco, and his uncanny aptitude for noting and interpreting details others ignore, are only three of the numerous character tags that make him live in our imagination.

Character tags may be drawn from any aspect of the character’s appearance or behavior:

body carriage
dialect and speech mannerisms
mental state

A sympathetic character who has red hair may be described as having “carrot red hair,” while a creepy character might have “hair the color of dried blood.”

Some characters in a novel may appear only a few times, but the most minor character needs a character tag or two to make him memorable. In The Mummers Curse Gillian Roberts introduces a minor character with this description:

I didn’t recognize him, but I didn’t think I should be scared. He was polite, his voice low-pitched and confident, and apparently he knew me. Besides, he was elegant. In his early forties, I thought, with prematurely silver hair uncovered despite the freezing wind, and looking none the worse for it. His topcoat was visibly soft, cashmere, I suspected, and his hands, encased in buttery brown gloves, held a leather-bound book with gold-edged pages.

When the character appears again, the author reiterates some of these details, for example, the silver hair that defies the elements, the expensive attire, and the book.

C. R. Corwin’s “Morgue Mama Mysteries” feature a newspaper librarian in her sixties. Many of her character tags have to do with her appearance:

My name is Dolly Madison Sprowls. I’m 68 years old. I’m short, a little dumpy, and I haven’t changed my hairstyle since college.

I looked up and found Chick Glass. “I figured that was you, Maddy,” he said. He playfully flicked my Prince Valiant bangs with his fingers.

Used judiciously, character tags add dimension to the characters and enable the reader to tell them apart.

Depending on what mental baggage the reader brings to the story, however, character tags can jar the reader out of the dream and cause annoyance.

In the Amanda Pepper mysteries by Gillian Roberts, Amanda is a native of Philadelphia. Her boyfriend Mackenzie is from the South. One of his character tags is that he lapses into his native speech when stressed. Speech tags involving dialect and speech mannerisms can be effective, but Roberts doesn’t just make use of the tag and move on; she has Amanda comment at such length on Mackenzie’s lapses that I grow annoyed at what seems to me to be a display of a misplaced sense of regional superiority.

The Maddy Sprowls character has two character tags that yank me out of the story every time they occur. One is a speech tag and the other involves a habitual gesture. Here are examples:

Are you saying Gordon was gay?”
“Good gravy, does everything have to be about sex?”

She took the brick…”How much did you pay for it?”
I pawed the air. “It was a steal.”

Every time I read the interjection “Good gravy,” I pictured Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica from the comics. I don’t know if they said it, but that’s what I thought of every time and there are lots of “good gravies” in Dig.

The other tag that never failed to jar is “I pawed the air.” Maddy paws the air a lot. Every time I read that tag I imagined a rearing horse. I finally decided that Corwin intended to convey the dismissive gesture one might make while saying “Pshaw!”

Character tags are great ways to make fictional characters live, but take care to avoid any that may defeat the purpose of keeping the reader engaged in the story.

More on character tags:
Kaye Dacus

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4 thoughts on “Character Tags in Fiction”

  1. Excellent post.

    I’ll add another type of character tag: response.

    Each character has a unique personality (or should) and will, therefore, respond in particular ways to experiences. These responses are typically consistent, given similar experiences.

    For example, imagine a handsome teenage boy. The girls at school flirt with him. Because his responses are governed by his personality, he will respond in a manner that is unique to him. Once the response pattern is established, the reader will notice how his personality is changing through changes in his responses–which helps make the content interesting.

    I’m looking forward to what others have to say about character tags. This is an essential topic.

  2. I think my male character can only be told apart from my female character with the he said/she said. That’s not good. Any examples/suggestions to ensure the reader would know the male had spoken just by how he said it?

  3. I’m more inclined to categorize ‘good gravy’ and ‘pawed’ as verbal tics– overuse of words without the author being aware of it. One author used ‘arguably’ every few pages. It’s difficult for a writer to catch his/her own tics.

  4. MaryAnn: By personality, of course! Even if you have to go back and make several rewrites of chapters to make it so, be sure to have a distinct personality the reader can easily recognize. For instance, you may have one charactor be very scholarly, so anything you have them say will sound intellegent with uses of words that have to be explained. Another could be the cliche teenage girly-girl who could have her sentences clogged up with “like”, “uh”, “um”, and text-talk, such as “GTG” and “BTW”.

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