Tuesday, June 4

Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy

Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy

Why Tags & Traits Are Important

Tags and traits are an important part of characterization, and characterization is important because it helps create a bond of empathy between your characters and your reader.

Empathy And Creating Believable Characters

Jim Butcher writes:
If you can manage to create a vivid character in a reader's mind, then establish him as someone believable, you have a real shot at the Holy Grail of character design. If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It's what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

Like V-Factor, empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader's emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again. (Characters)
If a writer can establish a bond of empathy between a reader and their characters then the reader is done for, they're hooked. As that expression goes: You've got 'em by the short and curlies.

Isn't that how it feels sometimes? There's a furor over G.R.R. Martin's latest episode of the Game of Thrones: The Red Wedding. This episode was particularly gruesome and some important characters died in shockingly horrible ways.

But I'm betting most people don't stop watching, or stop reading. Why? Because we are involved emotionally with those characters. We empathize with them. We're tied to them.

Tags & Traits: What Are They?

Jim Butcher writes:
But forethought and preparation will play a role in this process, too. Here's another cool craft-tool for you guys to use: TAGS and TRAITS

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.

This is a really subtle psychological device, and it is far more powerful than it first seems. It's invaluable for both you as the writer, and for the construction of the virtual story for the reader.

TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. Harry's traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader's benefit, so that it's easy to imagine Harry when the story pace is really rolling.

Similarly, Bob the Skull's traits are the skull, its eyelights, his intelligence, his role as a lab assistant, his obsession with sex and his wiseass dialog. It works for the same reason.

Seriously. Before you introduce another character, write some tags and traits down. You'll be surprised how much easier it makes your job. (Characters)

John Yeoman And Choric Orchestration

I was reminded of tags and traits by John Yeoman's article: Guest Author John Yeoman: Three Great Tips From An Old Crime Writer.

Here John talks about the power of traits--behavioral traits--in characterization and story building.

John writes:
As soon as Lady Glanedale ‘elevates her eyebrows’ at the master detective Sage, without deigning to reply to him, we know she’s a wrong ‘un. Whenever Sage ‘mechanically’ fingers his fountain pen, or a paperweight, or the pages of a book, the reader can deduce that he has stumbled upon a Clue.

While he listens to witnesses, with no obvious interest, he compulsively doodles. ‘He drew a cottage upon his thumbnail.’ With each doodle, the reader expects him to sketch the face of the true culprit. Maddeningly, he never does.

The behavioral tics of Sage and his characters dance around the stories like a demented chorus, singing: ‘Pay attention! This bit is important.’ Remarkably, it works.
Good stuff!

Using tags other than "he said" and "she said"

John Yeoman also talks about how to use tags other than "he said" and "she said." For instance, he gives these examples:

‘She whispered softly’ --> ‘I strained to hear her
‘He said, gruffly’ --> ‘His words sounded like gravel in a cement mixer.’
‘She lisped, delightfully’ --> ‘I heard the wings of an angel, flying low.
‘He replied, angrily’ --> ‘His voice was broken glass.’
‘She said, in a beautiful voice’ --> ‘Her voice reminded me of summer nights in old Castilia.’

Using body actions to convey emotion:

‘She wept’ --> ‘Her body shook with silent sobs.’
‘I said, thoughtfully’ --> ‘I pulled meditatively upon my right ear lobe.’
‘She snorted, derisively’ --> ‘She elevated one elegant eyebrow.’
‘He gasped’ --> ‘He twirled his fingers with bewildering rapidity.’
‘He asked, bemused’ --> ‘He tugged the end of his beard as if he could tease from it some answer.’

 Using a mini-story to set the stage

John Yeoman writes:
This tactic is very useful. It lets you unfold a little story--ominous, amusing, or whatever you wish--behind the surface narrative, to add nuances to the main event. The elisions [...] indicate passages of intervening dialogue.

‘He counted upon his fingers’ ... ‘He ran out of fingers and flapped his hands’ ... ‘He closed his fist abruptly’

‘She toyed with a paper clip’ ... ‘She bent the paper clip into a little man’ ... ‘Her paper clip had now acquired two devilish horns’

‘I traced the outline of a hand upon a sheet of paper with a charcoal stick’ ... ‘I showed him the outline of my hand’ ... ‘I smudged the charcoal outline’ ... ‘“The picture is not the event,” I explained. “By itself, it tells us nothing.”’
Tags and traits, using body actions to convey emotion, using mini-stories to help dialogue flow, I've got a lot to practice tonight!

Happy writing.

Photo credit: "RD & KD BFF" by kevin dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Antares!

      I'm working on characterization in my own writing so posting about it helped focus my thoughts.

  2. Good post. I hadn't considered how character traits and descriptions could be used as tags. Definitely worth thinking about. :-)

  3. Super helpful. I just got done writing a murder mystery without using any tips and am planning a second one--I think this next one will be millions of times better due to the sole fact I'm absorbing these tips. Thanks much for the article!

    1. Thanks Sid! You've made my day. :-) If you think of it, let me know when your book is on sale.


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