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Wednesday, April 26, 2023

What is a Character Tag? Definition, Purpose, and Examples

A character tag is a word, phrase, description, trait, or concept repeatedly associated with a specific character.

Purpose of Character Tags in Fiction

There are several purposes for character tags:

  1. Tags help define a character, making him more distinct, more individualized from other characters in the story.
  2. Tags work as identifiers--they make it easier for the audience to quickly identify a character.
  3. Tags help with recall. When used appropriately, a character tag allows the reader to immediately recall the character, his traits, personality, and mannerisms.

Character tags can be particularly useful for flat characters and characters with small roles, who are often only defined by a few features, but tags can also be useful for round characters and characters with major roles.

They're especially important when working with a large cast of characters, because they allow the audience to easily keep track of who is who. 

But in order to better understand them, let's look at some examples.


Harry Potter is loaded with characters, but almost every character is tagged, making him or her more distinct and easy to identify, as well as recall.

From Harry's jet-black hair, green eyes, and lightning bolt scar, to Ron's freckles and long nose, and to Hermione's bushy brown mane and big front teeth--all of the lead characters are tagged. But so are many others.

Dumbledore is regularly noted as having half-moon spectacles, and eyes that can seem to x-ray others on occasion. Professor Trelawny wears shawls and usually smells of sherry. McGonagall is strict. Hagrid speaks in an eye dialect and has an enormous stature. Snape has his greasy hair and hooked nose. Cornelius Fudge frequently runs the brim of his bowler hat through his fingers. Collin Creevey has his camera. And Umbridge has the face of a toad with bows in her hair. 

Even Ernie Macmillan, a character with a very small role, is repeatedly associated with the word "pompous."

Despite the series having literally hundreds of characters, the writer's use of character tags helps the audience keep track of them with little effort.

Other books and series use character tags too, of course. In The Hunger Games, Katniss has her bow, braids, and Mockingjay pin, Peeta his blond hair and lashes, Gale his fiery eyes and personality, Haymitch his drunkenness and affinity for the word "sweetheart," Effie her wigs and politeness, Cinna his gold eyeliner, and Rue her regular stance of looking like a bird about to take flight.

Some more examples are, Olaf and his unibrow and shiny eyes in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Smeagol and his distinct voice in The Lord of the Rings, and Augustus with his cigarettes in The Fault in Our Stars.

A character tag can be almost anything: a physical description, a scent, a distinctive way of speaking, a mannerism or gait, a stance, a specific word.

But there are some dos and don'ts when it comes to working with them . . . 

Tips for Choosing, Using, and Writing Character Tags

- Avoid selecting generic and forgettable tags for your characters. For most stories, regularly mentioning that a character is in a white shirt is about as effective as not mentioning her shirt. It's too generic to be memorable. 

- Instead, choose a tag that is distinct and easy to recall--after all, that's kind of the point of having a character tag! So make sure you choose the right details to turn into tags. And honestly, human beings usually notice the most distinct features of a person first anyway, so your POV character should as well. Don't settle for a white shirt, when the character has a music note tattooed on her neck.

- At the same time, make sure the tag can be conveyed succinctly. If it's too long and complicated, it's going to slow pacing, since you have to refer to it repeatedly. It will probably also get annoying to your readers.

- Generally speaking, the smaller the character's role, the more succinct the tag should be. Out of the Harry Potter characters mentioned above, Ernie Macmillan has the smallest role. Notice his tag is one word, "pompous." Characters with bigger roles can have longer and more detailed tags, and more tags in general (that you can switch between). With that said, all tags should be somewhat succinct.

- If possible, mention a character's tag(s) when she first comes "on stage." This will help individualize her as audiences get a first impression, and will help audiences recall her and their experience with her later. This can be particularly important for supporting characters with small roles. Obviously with some major characters, like a POV character, it may not always work well to introduce the tags straight away, but you should have the character's voice to pull from at least.

- If the character has a small role, it becomes more important to repeat or reference the tags when she comes back "on stage"--that way the audience can quickly recall her. If the character has a major role, you don't need to repeat the same tags every scene he is in--don't overuse the tags. That could become annoying. Just refer to them often enough to be memorable and effective. It also helps to have multiple tags to switch between.

- Avoid using the same tag for multiple characters. If you've tagged Chelsey with the scent of rosemary, don't tag Olivia with the scent of rosemary too. This will make it harder for the audience to individualize the characters. However, if that's the point--that Chelsey is similar to Olivia, and that Olivia reminds the POV character of Chelsey--then that might be a justifiable rule break. Just know what you are doing and the effect it will have on the audience.

- It's nice when the tag communicates something more about the character than what is directly on the page. The reason Professor Trelawney often smells like sherry is because she drinks sherry when upset. It's her go-to coping mechanism. But this is more an added bonus than a rule--not every character tag needs subtext.

- Generally speaking, concrete tags (such as a music note tattoo) are more effective and memorable than abstract tags (such as "cute"). But abstract tags can be useful in keeping things succinct (i.e. Ernie being "pompous.") So while it's best to lean toward the concrete, it's okay to use the abstract on occasion.

- It can be helpful to write down a character's tags in their character bible, so you can easily recall and use them as a writer.

- Choose the tags you want the audience to remember the character by. What dominating qualities and characteristics best define this character?

- Not every single character needs a character tag. Your protagonist's one-time taxi driver might be a background character not worth tagging.

Other Kinds of Tags

Character tags can be used in other forms of storytelling, in films, plays, or comics. In The Office, Kevin Malone usually speaks in monotone and has a dull manner, while Dwight almost always wears a mustard-yellow button-down shirt, and Angela is surrounded by cats and baby pictures.

However, with that said, tags are particularly important for novels and short stories, because the audience doesn't have visuals to help them remember the characters.

Character tags are not to be confused with dialogue tags--which are used to identify the speaker of a line of dialogue. Examples include, "he said," "she whispered," "Mack complained," and "Savannah yelled." You can read more about dialogue tags and which to use in my article on them.

Finally, while tags are associated with characters, you can technically use them to tag places and experiences. What would the Gryffindor common room be like without its cozy fireplace and four poster beds? And every time Harry apparates, he gets a tug behind his navel. Such tags help the audience identify and recall other things in the story as well.

Related Articles:

3 Methods that Keep Details Interesting

Working with a Large Cast of Characters

What You Need to Know Most about Character Voice

Dos and Don'ts for Writing Your Viewpoint Character's Voice

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Only Use Said"

Writing the RIGHT Details


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