How to make your characters memorable by using tags & traits
By Kristi Belcamino
Have you ever read a book and then had to flip back a few pages to figure out just who the hell Matt is anyway? Why is he naked from the waist down? And why does Francesca faint when he walks into the room?
That writer may not have done a good job of giving Matt strong “tags & traits” to make him stand out in the reader’s mind. The goal in giving your characters tags and traits is not only to distinguish them as individuals, but also to make readers feel something about your characters.
The master of “tags & traits,” writer Jim Butcher, explains that the feeling could be love or could be hate, but that the reader will be anything but apathetic. “Tags & traits” make your character pop off the page for your reader. They bring that character to life.
But what exactly are “tags & traits?"
Here is how to use them, based on reading Jim Butcher and Karen Woodward:*
Find two to three words to describe your character. Use these words the first time you introduce that character on the page. Jim Butcher recommends you only use these tags in reference to your character (not anywhere else in the manuscript) and hit these words every once in a while when your character makes a new appearance.
“By doing this, you’ll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character." — Jim Butcher quote on Karen Woodward’s blog.*
For instance, I might describe my main character Gabriella Giovanni as: Italian-American, curvy, passionate, and a risk-taker who blazes her own trail. All of those words are tags.
Caveat: Some writers distinguish between tags and traits, but for the purposes of my post, I’m combining them and just labeling them “tags.” (My understanding is that a tag is one word, such as curvy, while a trait, is more of an attitude type description, such as “risk-taker who blazes her own trail.”)
I'm not sure if all of these methods would be sanctioned by Butcher and Woodward as true "tags & traits" but here is how I use "tags & traits" to distinguish characters on a page:
A tag can be a physical trait.
Black hair. Blond bob. Carefully, messy hair.
For instance, Gabriella Giovanni’s love interest, Detective Sean Donovan, has carefully messy hair, dark eyebrows and a frequent five o’clock shadow.
Her best friend, courts reporter Nicole, is poised, sports a blond bob, and has freckles.
A tag can be a prop.
In my book, Chris Lopez, the bad-ass photojournalist is always packing heat. He usually has a sidearm on both his ankle and in a shoulder holster. In addition, C-Lo always has an earbud in his ear that is connected to a police scanner clipped to his belt. This guy never misses breaking crime news!
A tag can be a speech pattern.
In addition, C-Lo frequently uses the word “man” in his speech patterns. He, also, uses police ten codes as part of his vocabulary. It’s pretty easy to tell who is talking when a character is having a conversation with Lopez. On the other hand, Nicole, the courts reporter doesn’t say “man.” Her favorite word—or phrase in this case—is “Holy shit!”
A tag can be mannerisms.
Chris Lopez never sits still. He’s either punching the steering wheel, tapping his fingers, pacing, or climbing nearby trees.
A tag can be clothing choices.
George Lucas purposefully dressed Luke Skywalker in white and Darth Vader in black throughout most of Star Wars. Then, at the end, Skywalker dons victory orange. In my second novel, Blessed are the Meek, my vixen, Annalisa, who is dangerous, alluring, and sexy, always wears red.
A tag can be action.
When you introduce your character onto the page for the first time, show him doing something that reveals what type of person he is. For instance, Jim Butcher points out that the first time we see Princess Leia on the big screen, she is blasting Stormtroopers to infinity and beyond.
A tag can be attitude.
In my second novel, Blessed are the Meek, we meet the mayor of San Francisco being his usual charmingly arrogant self, lighting up a cigarette indoors in front of a mass of reporters even though smoking indoors is against the law in his city.
A tag can be a motto or credo.
Gabriella Giovanni’s motto is Die before cry. That tells you something about her right away.
Do you use tags & traits in your writing? If not, do you have any ideas to share on how to distinguish characters from one another?
*This post was inspired by the amazing Karen Woodward’s blog, which is part of my daily reading no matter what. Karen first introduced me to Jim Butcher and the idea of tags and traits and I’m incredibly grateful for that. Here is her latest on it and here is Jim Butcher's blog.
Thank you. I fight this all the time and did not until now know the root cause.
Great post, Kristi!
Very detailed, love this post, thank you! I first met the careful 'tagging' of characters (or even real people for that matter) in the books of one of my favorite Italian writers (widely translated and appreciated in the US, btw) Natalia Ginzburg. She usually only uses "quick brushstrokes", casually mentioning a single characteristic the first time you meet the character, but then bringing it up again later, sometimes in a funny way.
Jack, thanks so much. I'm glad you found it helpful! Thanks for the nice words, Holly!
Giovanna, very cool - I'm definitely going to read Natalia Ginzburg and study how she does this so skillfully!
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