Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tags, Traits And Tells (Podcast)

Tags, Traits And Tells (Podcast)

Okay folks, I've taken the plunge and put together a podcast!



Please keep in mind this is my FIRST podcast. One's first time doing anything is not going to be anywhere close to polished so please keep that in mind. Also, although I'm getting a proper mic on the weekend, today I made due with the built-in mic on my iPad.

As you can see, I've embedded the sound file at the top of this post. If it doesn't show up for you, please let me know.

For those of you who would much rather read than listen, I've included a written transcript here of what I talked about.


Jim Butcher On Story Craft


Jim Butcher, in his Story Craft blog post writes that stories are about characters attempting to attain goals. The problems, the setbacks, a character encounters makes him or her struggle and creates tension.

But, ultimately, whether we'll be interested in a particular story depends on whether we find the character's interesting.

So, what makes a character interesting?


What makes a character interesting?


I imagine different writers would answer this in different ways. My goal as a story teller is to tell an entertaining story so I seek out the advice of authors who have created stories which have entertained me. Authors like Jim Butcher.

Mr. Butcher has a list of characteristics that make a character interesting--and I want to talk about them all one day soon--but for now the one that interests me is "verisimilitude", verisimilitude being "the quality of appearing to be true or real". A character that has verisimilitude will "have the appearance of being real". In other words, they will act and react believably in whatever world you've set up.

What makes a character act believably?

I think consistency is a big part of believability. (It can be that a character consistently seems to behave randomly). A part of consistency is just something simple like don't give a character blond hair in one scene and red hair in another, at least without some sort of explanation.

There are two parts to creating believable characters:

a) Being clear about what your character is like, their traits, quirks and mannerisms.


If this isn't clear then it will be impossible to predict their behavior.

b) Assigning different characteristics to each character.


These characteristics should be markedly different so that it's easy to tell characters apart. Also, if, say, "grey eyes" are being used as a tag for one character then try to avoid using that as a tag for another character.


Tags, Traits and Tells


Tags, traits and tells are concepts writers can use to help create interesting, unique, characters.

The first time I came across the concept of tags and traits was courtesy of Jim Butcher so he's the one I quote from, below, although writers such as Dwight V. Swain have talked about the concept as well.

Tags


Tags are physical characteristics that define individual characters and differentiate them from the rest.

Here's what Jim Butcher wrote about them in his LiveJournal blog:
TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you're putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you'll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character.

For example; Thomas Raith's tag words are pale, beautiful, dark hair, grey eyes. I use them when I introduce him for the first time in each book, and then whenever he shows up on stage again, I remind the reader of who he is by using one or more of those words. (Characters)

An example of a tag is blond hair, a peg leg, or stunning beauty. Tags are physical characteristics that can help differentiate one character from another. Since tags differentiate one character from another they need to be unique to each character.

Traits


There are a couple of different ways of thinking about traits. Jim Butcher views traits as "decorations hung onto the character for the reader's benefit."

For instance, Harry Dresden's black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet are traits. Bob's traits are the skull, how his eyes light up, his intelligence, and so on.

That's one way of thinking of traits. Here's another:

Traits as dispositions


A trait is a disposition. Examples: Being ambitious, or anxious, or bossy.

On this view--and this is how I look at it--there are tags, traits and tells, a tell being how a trait/disposition is manifested.

For instance, if a character is anxious she might bite her lower lip, jump at small sounds and gnaw her fingernails.

I call how traits manifest--nail biting and the like--tells because a tell means "to make known; reveal." It reveals a character's traits/dispositions.

To sum up, we have tags--physical characteristics like blond hair and freckles that don't have anything to do with the character's psychological makeup. Then we have character traits which are internal dispositions (e.g., anxiety) and tells (e.g., nail biting) which are how a character's traits manifest.

The importance of being different


Tags, traits and tells should be unique to a character since one reason for coming up with these markers is to quickly differentiate one character from another.

For instance, let's say we have a character, Pam. Pam has blond hair, a voluptous figure and loves mathematics. Although she fits the stereotype of the blond bombshell she is smarter than just about everyone else.

Pam's tags:
- blond
- voluptuous

Pam's traits:
- brilliant
- outgoing

Pam's tells:
- Can do math problems in her head quicker than a calculator.
- A favorite lecturer at the university.
- Chairs a number of committies.

When a character is introduced also introduce their tags, traits and tells. Repeat each two or three times to fix them in the readers mind.

For instance, the way technology malfunctions around Jim Butcher's character Harry Dresden is a manifestation of the trait of being a wizard/magic user. The blue beetle, Harry's low tech car, is perfect for Harry because of this trait even though the car is falling apart.Harry's icebox--he doesn't have an electric fridge--is, again, a concession to his shorting out anyting technological within arms reach.

You see how tells can help not only define a character but can suggest plot elements.

Other articles you might like:

- Podcasting
- Good Writing: Using The Senses
- Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel

Photo credit: "Untitled" by thejbird under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

7 comments:

  1. Bravo Karen!

    Great first podcast and show notes. It was well produced with very useful information. I look forward to more.

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    1. Thanks Werner! I appreciate your kind words. :-)

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  2. Great stuff, Ms. Woodward. I especially like the TAGs, traits, and tell tips. I myself have halted ASFT from being distributed to the retailers, until I upload a fully edited and revised version on SW. I still have left around 20 chapters to work through. This post of yours is most opportune for me; since it reminded me that I have to extra emphasize the triple Ts I've developed for my own characters.
    Thank you.

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    1. Thanks Serban! It seems as though the editing is never done. I'm reminded of something Tina Fey said (this is a paraphrase): The show doesn't go on because it's finished, it goes on because it's 11pm.

      Best of luck with your last edit!

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    2. That's a good quote. By the way, I loved your audio podcast. Your voice is totally hot. Let this be the first of many.

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  3. Good post. Lots of things to think about as you outline/build your character.

    Congrats on your first podcast. (Fun placing a voice to a personality. A photo icon only relays so much)

    - Mac

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    1. Thanks Mac! I must admit it feels good to have finally done something I've been thinking about for over a year.

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Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies to anyone this inconveniences, I wish I didn't have to do it. I do appreciate each and every comment.