Nov 4, 2008

Character Tags

by Valerie Ipson

Today is election day, so of course, I have decided to blog about character tags. (Seriously, we all know we need to get out and vote—and if you haven’t done so, leave this blog immediately…go do it…right now. When you’ve done your duty, come back, enjoy the blog, shower me with flattering comments, and, if you’re up for it, tune in to election results tonight. Oh, and VOTE YES on Prop 102!)

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to identify characters for the (future) readers of my novel. That’s what I mean by tags (not the other way writers use the term tags--as the way to identify who “said” what). It’s like when my dad remarried and the new “Nana” to my children had trouble keeping Kara’s and Kristen’s names straight. With the girls being close in age and both with a K, she kept getting them mixed up. Four-year-old Kristen devised a fool-proof way. She said to Nana, “Just remember, I’m the cute one and Kara likes to draw.”

I hope Kara kept a pencil and paper handy, so her Nana could have that visual clue to her identity! That’s what we need to do for our readers—give visual clues and character traits to help keep characters straight. Of course, most important is their name. What clues does it give about the type of person they are? Another is giving them a physical action or habit. Do they bite their nails or toss their lovely head of curls, like all the time. One author (Jack-something, sorry I can’t remember!) says we should exaggerate character traits. For example, if the character is a neat freak we show 28 different instances of when he/she exhibits neat-freakish behavior. If he/she is a giver, thinking always of others, give at least 28 different examples throughout the story showing this quality. I made up the 28 part. You do it as much as necessary to get the point across, because unlike real life where many of us are mediocre at being givers and at being neat, sometimes fictional characters need to be a bit over the top for readers to really care about them. (Secretly, don’t we love the over-the top characters in real life, too!)


  1. This is a great piece. We do love over-the-top characters, both to read them and to be them right?

  2. This is wonderful advice and much needed. Part of the problem I have in partner authorship is both of us forget what character was what. I like the idea of the 28 rule. Thanks. And I voted but alas my guy lost.


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