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Character Tags and Tics
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
August 1, 2013
This problem is not new; it has challenged storytellers for millennia. So over time, we storytellers have developed a variety of techniques. The first is the choice of a memorable name -- a subject I will not cover in this column, but may address in another (Writing-World.com already has a few articles devoted to the issue in its Characters, Viewpoint & Names section). The second method, around for at least three thousand years, has been the use of tags -- specific phrases associated with a particular character -- and tics -- quirks associated with a particular character.
In Homer's The Iliad, these tags are called "epithets" (and yes, epithets can be used to refer to phrases outside of Homer). Here are some examples: ox-eyed Hera; fleet-footed Achilles; Nestor son of Neleus. The first shows a physical characteristic. Ox-eyed (sometimes translated cow-eyed) is a compliment, indicating that the eyes of the goddess Hera are large and dark. Achilles is described as having a physical skill. With respect to Nestor, we learn the name of his father; your father and his family were especially important in Ancient Greece.
Homer's characters in The Iliad also have tics, which can be a great source for creating tags. Merriam-Webster's second definition of the word "tic" is "a frequent usually unconscious quirk of behavior or speech." We'll expand this definition to include other quirky or at least distinctive attributes associated with a character, from possessions such as Hector's shiny helmet, or else mannerisms, such as Diomedes' loud war-cries.
Now, Homer's The Iliad is one of the oldest and most influential stories to come down to us, but we should remember that the epithets in the epic had a somewhat different function than tags and tics do today. The Iliad in its original form is poetry, written in dactylic hexameter, and so the first necessity for the construction of an epithet was to fit the cadence of the poem. Second, when it was created, The Iliad was generally recited and not read, as both papyrus and literacy were rare. Recitation places a greater burden on the memories of both the storyteller and the audience, and the epithets help both of them keep track.
Let's fast-forward several millennia, to another author whose character tags and tics are still famous. With Uriah Heep (David Copperfield), Charles Dickens created a fabulous villain, who was lanky, had clammy hands and spoke hypocritically at length on the importance of being humble. Charles Dickens' characters show a great variety of tags and tics, from Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield with his shiny bald head and his frequently repeated hope that "something would turn up," to Fagin in Oliver Twist.
We should recall that Dickens also had a very important reason for developing such unique and memorable tags and tics. His novels were written and read serially. The Pickwick Papers, his break-out success, appeared in 19 installments over a period of 20 months (due to the death of his sister-in-law, Dickens missed a deadline). This meant that readers might not meet a character again for a month or even longer.
Today, stories are experienced in many different ways. Theater, TV and film, and graphic novels supplement words with visual information; I will not address them here. Others depend only on words, but those words can be delivered to your audience through paper, electronically or even in an audio format. The last two formats require, as did the storytelling of the past, that your characters be sufficiently memorable for your readers to be able to keep them straight.
So, what tags and tics should you use? The answer depends on the story you are telling -- these are your artistic decisions -- but you can develop them via physical features, possessions and mannerisms.
Writers frequently start by considering height, weight, eye color, race and color and length of hair. These are certainly attributes you need to know and to track, but it is more interesting and more memorable to the reader to move beyond these aspects to others that are more distinctive. Nearly all of us have flaws; what is wrong with the character's body? Start at the crown of the head and move down. Do the ears stick out? Is the nose especially large or red? Is the chin pointed, cleft, bearded or strewn with warts? What about birthmarks, tattoos and scars?
Keep working down the body. A person may have a long or a short neck, one with a prominent Adam's apple, or one that is showing signs of age. Fingernails can be polished or chewed; a woman may have varicose veins; a man may have a paunch or a six-pack: these are all possibilities.
Note that physical features do not have to be visible but may be part of the character's physique. Uriah Heep's clammy hands and Achilles' fleetness of foot are both things that they experience or do with their bodies. Blurry, more tics than tags. In our Niobe series we gave one of the heroes, Amphion, sensitive hearing -- which made sense because he was a musician -- while giving the heroine, Niobe, an excellent sense of smell.
Tags can be based on your characters' possessions. How do they dress? What do they have with them? This has been used in sculptures and paintings since ancient time: Athena can be identified by her helmet, the head of Medusa and sometimes by her owl. Hercules, when not naked, wears a lion skin and carries a club. Harry Potter wears glasses. These artifacts can be things they like or they need, but they serve to help identify the characters.
Mannerisms can the way people speak: accents, grammar, slowly, quickly, with lots of ums, or stuttering, or raising one's voice at the end of each sentence, making everything sound like a question (even when it is not). Mannerisms can involve how people move, such as Uriah Heep's writhing.
Once you have a few tics, you can turn them into tags that can help your readers identify characters quickly. However, as you are probably not writing in dactylic hexameter, you don't have to use the same phrase over and over. Furthermore, you should be aware of pitfalls to sidestep when creating tics and tags.
The first has to do with stereotypes. Many will be uneasy about relying on what they feel are stereotypes, ranging from being worried about being insensitive or politically incorrect to feeling that using stereotypes is simply lazy writing. There is something to both of these objections. In defense of stereotypes let me say that they often exist for a reason; the society may have many examples in real life. Second, using aspects of stereotypes can make it easier for your readers to remember your characters. Nevertheless, try not to overuse stereotypes. Be careful, too, against overcompensating for stereotypes by making your character too much the opposite of the stereotype.
Some tags and tics may fall flat. Again, referring to Charles Dickens' David Copperfield: when the orphaned David first encounters his great-aunt, Betsy Trotwood, she has a serious and inconvenient prejudice against donkeys. Perhaps as I live in a completely different environment, I do not understand how annoying donkeys are. Anyway, this particular tic does not work for me. I suspect that it did not work that well for Dickens, either, as he reduced its frequency later.
Some characteristics can turn your characters into caricatures. You can prevent this by adding a little bit of depth, complexity or even a bit of contradiction to a character.
Ration your tics and tags. Unless a character is playing a significant role in your story, you may not want to give her too many tics and tags.
Some can be repeated too often. I enjoyed "The Belgariad" by David & Leigh Eddings, an epic of five tomes and additional spinoffs. With so many words and characters, the use of tags was necessary, but they called Silk/Kheldar "rat-faced" so frequently that I found it irritating rather than enlightening.
The best tags and tics enhance your story. Harry Potter's scar is not just something that identifies him immediately to all who see him, but something that plays a significant role in Rowling's series. Some tics are deliberately misleading. Uriah Heep's constant cant about humbleness in David Copperfield turns out to be a fraud; he resents the humble role he was forced to assume, and is not only ambitious but feels superior to those who, according to Victorian society, are supposed to be his betters. Other tags can be used to illuminate setting or personality or to bring the plot forward.
A Real-World Exercise
I've barely scratched the surface of possible tics and tags -- and this is great, because that means there is still of universe of possibilities for you to explore, to invent, to make your stories and characters your own. In order to expand your repertoire, the next time you are compelled to wait in a place with a lot of other people -- an airport, a train station, the emergency room, a bar or grocery store or almost anywhere else -- deliberately study your fellow human beings. Notice their peculiarities, how they look, how they dress, how they move, how they interact with people. Perhaps you will borrow a man's handlebar mustache, the way a woman speaks to her poodle, the way a man cracks his knuckles, the way a woman clears her throat, and insert them into your novel to make your characters even more vibrant for your readers.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.