Perhaps the most difficult part of learning this craft of writing fiction is learning to create and describe characters. Characterization is as much of an art as it is a science. We must give our readers enough physical and emotional description for them to create a mental image of the character, but not so much that it slows down the story. We must provide enough, but not so much that it gets in the way.
So how do we do that? What is the formula? Just as important, how do we learn to strike that artful balance?
Unfortunately, like all art, there is no formula. (If there was, we’d all be great artists, right?) The only real method to learn how to achieve that balance is by reading established masters and then trying to do it in our own work. Imitation, coupled with trial and error, really is the only way to get there from here.
With that being said, there is one technique that is quite useful in communicating characterization to the reader and that is the character tag.
The character tag is a memorable term or phrase used to mark or differentiate a character from others. It can be a physical feature (like a birthmark), a mannerism (say, chewing nails under stress), a verbal quirk (like referring to one’s self in the third person), or by tying them to a particular location. It’s a shorthand manner of reminding the reader who they are seeing.
Think of it as a literary theme song.
It’s especially useful when you have a large number of characters the reader needs to somehow keep straight in their head, or the action moves so fast you, the writer, don’t want to slow things down with a lot of description.
In Stephen King’s masterful (and long) novel, It, virtually every major character has a tag, from “stuttering” Bill, to Richie and his “voices,” and even the evil entity with its clown and balloons. All it takes after the introduction of each character is a quick mention of the tag and we know exactly who we’re dealing with. Like much of Mr. King’s work, it’s masterful.
F. Scott Fitzgerald uses tags in The Great Gatsby, one of the shorter novels out there, again, with mastery. This time it’s a vocal tag. Whenever the subject of the novel, Jay Gatsby, speaks, we hear him use the term “sport” when referring to the people around him. It’s unique within the work and is an integral part of his characterization. From the first time we meet him, we can recognize his speech without any further description.
That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.
In my first novel, Ni’il: The Awakening, I used a tag to describe the local doctor/medical examiner who is something of a mid-major character. When we first meet him, I give the reader a moderate physical description, ending “with his long hair and granny-style glasses, he bore a strong resemblance to John Lennon.” From then on, throughout the novel (and its sequels) whenever he reappeared, all I needed to do was mention the John Lennon connection for the reader to place him.
The danger inherent in using character tags is getting too cute with them and risking ending up with caricatures instead of characterizations. The way to avoid this is to make sure the tag is an essential part of the character’s description. Rather than invent a tag and place it on the character, describe the character and create the tag from that description. It will help to ensure that the tag is organic and not just clever or cute.
But as we strive to achieve that balance of description and brevity, keep tags in mind as a part of your toolbox. If used well, they can help greatly.