Let’s talk about character tags.
In a later post I’ll talk more about how Dwight V. Swain and others thought of tags and traits. In this post I'll provide an overview. Hopefully this post will give you an idea what I mean by “character tag” and why it can be the single most powerful tool in your writer’s tool box.
A character tag is something visible--a favorite ugly neon pink scarf, an odd pattern of speech, eyes that turn colour when the character has solved a puzzle--that helps a reader remember a character and bring them back to mind after she has been absent for a few pages.
It sounds simple, perhaps even simplistic, but a reader cannot love a character she doesn't remember.
I’ve been reading Jim Butcher’s new books in the Harry Dresden series, Peace Talks and Battle Ground. I think Butcher would agree that much of the success of his Dresden Files series is that his readers find the protagonist, Harry Dresden, memorable. (Of course, Butcher’s readers do more than remember Harry, they love him, but getting readers to love your character is a series of posts all by itself. We’ll get there though!)
Character tags: an example.
“The new mailman, who looked like a basketball with arms and legs and a sunburned, balding head, was chuckling at the sign on the door glass.” (Storm Front, Jim Butcher)
This description comes from the fourth paragraph in Storm Front, Butcher’s first book in his Dresden Files series. That’s a good description! He “looked like a basketball with arms and legs.” Okay. Not the kindest thing to say, but I can picture this guy, this new mailman, and I think you can too. And, by the way, even the fact that that wasn’t the kindest thing to point out--after all, I suspect both you and I have a characteristic or two we’re not completely thrilled about--says something about Harry Dresden. That’s because Butcher writes this book from a first person perspective, from Harry’s perspective, and so we are getting not a disembodied narrator's description but Harry’s thoughts.
Two kinds of character tags.
I think that character tags fall into roughly two categories: some character tags reflect the character’s strengths and weaknesses while others are primarily about making the character memorable. I’ll talk about both, below.
Character tags that express core attributes of a character versus those that don’t.
Ideally, all character tags would tie into some deep characteristic, something important to that character, something that makes them the character they are: a strength or a weakness. But that doesn’t always happen, and that’s okay.
Character tags that are just tags.
One of my favorite characters that Agatha Christie created was Mrs. Ariadne Oliver. She wasn’t a major character, only appearing in (I think) nine Poirot stories and one featuring her detective Parker Pyne.
Oliver was a self-insertion which is to say that she had many characteristics of Christie herself. Christie occasionally made mistakes with clues, mistakes which fans constantly informed her about. In “Mrs McGinty’s Dead,” Oliver groans about radically underestimating the length of a blowpipe. Well, Christie did this herself in Death on the Clouds. That's just one example.
Anyway, Oliver’s tags work for the character but aren’t especially tied to whatever characteristics make her the character she is. For example, Oliver loves apples. She’s always got an apple near her, in her bag, there will be a plate of apples in her room, etc.
Another of Oliver’s tags is that she attempts overly intricate hairdos but it doesn’t quite come off. Or, rather, it does! Hairpins work their way loose, etc. Oliver makes decisions based on emotion and not reason--something Oliver refers to as “feminine intuition.”
The fact that Ariadne Oliver’s hairdo was always coming loose, fake curls springing out from her head helter skelter, did show that while she liked to be creative, she had these grand plans, but they didn’t really come off the way she wanted them to. And she never noticed that her intuition had led her down a dead end. Though, that said, she did guess the correct murderer in one of the stories before Poirot did (I won’t say which one, that would spoil it), however that seemed to be a fortunate accident; even a broken clock is correct twice a day.
Obviously, Mrs Ariadne Oliver was a character that Christie used to assume the role of “The Watson," but also because it amused her to insert herself into the story and gently mock herself. The fact remains that at least one of Oliver’s main tags doesn’t have anything to do with either a strength or a weakness: Oliver's love of apples. That said, it worked wonderfully.
Character tags that tie into the deeper self.
I think the best tags tie into a character’s strengths or weaknesses. Let’s go over three examples: Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
Nero Wolfe liked to have a comfortable life, he valued a high standard of living. That isn’t necessarily a weakness, but that desire requires a lot of money to fulfill. This demand drove Wolfe’s occasionally lazy self to seek out and solve cases. Also, Wolfe’s desire to stay indoors and enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle made solving cases more difficult. As far as weaknesses go, that’s great!
So how did Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe books, visually signal Wolfe’s desire for luxury? Wolfe wore expensive immaculately tailored suits, he loved gourmet food and had his own private chef (Fritz Brenner), he had a passion for cultivating orchids (an expensive hobby), and, above all, he relished never having to leave his brownstone to do physical labour, he had Archie Goodwin for that.
In terms of strengths, Wolfe was brilliant and could solve cases that stumped everyone else--IF he was properly motivated. Also, if push came to a very energetic shove, Wolfe was loyal to those who were loyal to him.
So, to summarize, there were more tags than just these (I didn’t mention anything about beer), but here are the ones I’ve covered so far.
Wolfes’ fine dining and lack of exercise made him obese. Enormous. He likes having his clothes tailor made from the best materials, but I also imagine Wolfe couldn’t just breeze into a department store and buy something off the rack. And then, as I’ve mentioned, there is Wolfe’s love of what are among the most expensive plants to cultivate, orchids.
So those are some of Nero Wolfe’s character tags: obese, dapper, lazy, an orchid lover and brilliant. All around, a marvelous character.
Since these tags are tied into both Wolfe’s strength (he is very smart and good at solving cases when he is properly motivated) and his weakness (he would would much rather tend orchids and eat delicious food than solve cases) they not only help us remember the character, but bring to mind what makes him interesting.
I can never decide who is my favorite detective, Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. I was introduced to Poirot in grade nine when my English teacher asked us to read one of Christie’s most popular novels, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” After that, I quickly worked my way through every detective story Christie had written.
Hercule Poirot’s strengths were his intellect and his understanding of psychology. His weaknesses were his immense ego and an anachronistic, rigid, sense of fashion. I would say that Poirot was vain, but if he was, his vanity only extended to his sense of style (because he wasn’t stylish!). But he was usually--though not always--correct when it came to his mental ability. 
Christie expressed these traits in appearance and behavioral tags. She gave Poirot a mincing walk, an antiquated sense of style, an oddly shaped head (egg shaped), a passion for unhealthy delicacies combined with a disinclination to exercise (she contrasted this with Author Hastings’ love of sports).
Another behavioural tag was Poirot’s green eyes which tended to glow when he was in deep thought (this reminds me of Sherlock Holmes playing his violin).
Also, Christie gave Poirot the ability to break certain social norms. He could (and did) lie easily--but never to himself! Also, he felt no compunction about, for example, searching a young woman’s bedroom for love letters and then reading them. (This happened, for example, in Peril at End House.) And he was very neat, orderly and methodical.
A character tag is something that is associated with your character that is:
- Unique to this character
- (If possible) tied to a character’s strength or weakness
Always keep in mind, though, that writing is more of a dark art than a science. Do whatever works for you.
That's it for today! Good writing and I'll talk to you again, likely on Monday.
 I’m not sure how many people will be interested in this, so I’ve put it in a footnote.
This is an excerpt from Peril at End House that illustrates some of the points I’ve been making:
(By the way, SPOILER WARNING!!!)
“[Hastings says,] You think she [Nick] is keeping something back?”
“Yes.” [Poirot replies]
“Possibly with an idea of shielding whoever it is?”
Poirot shook his head with the utmost energy.
“No, no. As far as that goes, she gave me the impression of being utterly frank. I am convinced that as regards these attempts on her life, she was telling all she knew. But there is something else—something that she believes has nothing to do with that at all. And I should like to know what that something is. For I—I say it in all modesty—am a great deal more intelligent than une petite comme ça. [I am much smarter a little like that.] I, Hercule Poirot, might see a connection where she sees none. It might give me the clue I am seeking. For I announce to you, Hastings, quite frankly and humbly, that I am as you express it, all on the sea. Until I can get some glimmering of the reason behind all this, I am in the dark. There must be something—some factor in the case that I do not grasp. What is it? Je me demande ça sans cesse. Qu’est-ce que c’est? [I keep asking myself that. What is that?]”
I hate doing this, but I’m going to spoil the ending of Peril at End House. I think this is one of Christie’s best books, so if you haven’t read it (the book is better than the TV adaptation, beautiful though that is) stop reading this footnote.
Poirot is completely wrong about Nick, but he is understandably wrong. He is making two errors. First, he thinks he is always the smartest person in the room. And, sure. Usually he is. But this time is the exception. Christie plays fair with the reader here, she gave us clues, she--as Poirot might say--gives us the psychology of the situation. Poirot actually says:
“For I—I say it in all modesty—am a great deal more intelligent than une petite comme ça. I, Hercule Poirot, might see a connection where she sees none.”
And, sure, it’s not unreasonable for Poirot to think that he might see something a person who isn’t a detective wouldn’t, but Christie is mildly mocking Poirot here, because he is so sure that a young woman couldn’t outwit him. But, in the best possible form, she has given Poirot what every protagonist needs: an unlikely antagonist who is smart enough to pull the wool over his eyes. At the end of the story Poirot, thoroughly stumped, is able to see past his belief in his own brilliance and accepts that he could possibly not be the smartest person in the situation and sees Nick for who she really is, only then does Poirot realize who the murderer is.
Second, I think Hercule Poirot has a tendency to think that Nick is warmer and kinder than she actually is because she’s a woman. Christie used this trick over and over. Poirot constantly uses the fact that he is odd looking and foreign to encourage others to underestimate him and let down their guard. And then Cristie creates the character of Nick and uses this very thing against Poirot. Brilliant!
I’ve read this book MANY times, but it never disappoints even though I know the plot because I so enjoy seeing how Christie hoodwinked me the first time. And, also, I love her characters as well as her voice.
Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index