Thursday, March 10, 2011

Character Tag Clutter

Trying to come up with a theme for today's post, I asked a friend what was notable about the last book she read.

"I'm reading one of the books in a series," she said, "it's a long series and in the current book the protagonist is listing her heroic achievements. She's vain. It gets annoying."

I pressed her on the issue. My buddy gave a sigh. "Well the protagonist says, 'hello I am a *insert vocation*, I am a *insert character's paying job*, the girlfriend of a *insert something about the BF in question*, the leader of a *insert group*, part of a *insert second group* that is super powerful because I am an uber powerful untaught *insert vocation* who doesn't know how to control my shit.' "

I'd read most of the series in question (and enjoyed it) and although I didn't exactly agree that the character was vain I got where my girlfriend was coming from. I've left out the specifics about the character as I don't want to point fingers, and more importantly it's a situation that any series author should think about.

So lets handle the easy question first.

Character Tags

In any long term series, the character is going to have a lot of "tags" amongst their luggage. These can come in the forms of vocations (ex-cop, detective, artist, janitor), recurring friends and cohorts, groups the protagonist belongs to, titles the character was given, mannerisms (favorite drinks, always wearing a rumpled coat) and more.

For the first several Nancy Drew mysteries (forgive me, I've been on a Nancy Drew kick lately) every single person she solved a mystery for gave her a memento, and of course she had to show them off in the next book. After three or four books it got so cumbersome that the authors left that off. (Or maybe I read newer versions where the editors cut those lines.)

The problem comes when the author feels the need to trot out every single accomplishment.

Now in case your reader starts somewhere in the middle of your series, you want to let them know a little about your character. But if a reader has read your entire series, a huge chunk of exposition on your protagonist's past exploits will send them to sleep, or as in the case of my friend, set them to ranting. So how do you balance this?

Decide on your Core Tags

Kinsey Milhone (Sue Grafton) cuts her hair with nail scissors, jogs regularly, has a bad attitude toward relationships and an all purpose black dress that never needs ironing. She eats at Rosie's Restaurant, owned by an overbearing Hungarian woman and lives in a remodeled garage owned by a dashing 80-something gent who cooks, bakes and writes crossword puzzles.

Matt Scudder (Lawrence Block) is an ex-cop who mistakenly killed a kid in a shootout, used to be (in the first books) a drunk and now goes to several AA meetings a day. He works "under the table" and won't get a detective license. He's divorced. He likes to read the newspapers.

Bernie Rhodenbarr (also Lawrence Block) is a burglar who owns a bookstore, and is in turn, owned by Raffles the cat. He hangs out with a lesbian named Caroline who owns a pet parlor. They take turns having lunch at each other's business, and usually have drinks together after work - unless Bernie is working - Bernie never drinks before a robbery.

Inspector Thomas Pitt (Anne Perry) speaks like an aristocrat (he was the gameskeeper's son and schooled alongside the lord's son) but dresses like a slob, despite the best efforts of his wife Charlotte, who keeps his home cozy and helps him solve mysteries. He keeps an odd assortment of items (string, small toys, loose change, handkerchiefs, and more) in his pockets, and it stretches his coat out of shape. He's usually called to cases involving the gentry. Charlotte has several aristocratic relatives who get involved in the mysteries. They have two children, two cats and a maid named Gracie who's also been getting involved in the mysteries of late.

I didn't have to look up a single thing to make this list because these are the character tags that persist through each of these series. (Unless there's a new sequel I haven't read yet).

I'll call these "Core Tags" as they form the central quirks and tags that describe the character.

Decide on a few tags you want to use in every book (you may gain a few more Core Tags as your character grows).

And with the rest...

Limit How Many Tags You Use

You don't need to give the reader every detail of your protagonist's history right away or all the time. After all, you want them to read your other books, right? So give a few details from the past or who they are now (because of the experiences they had in previous books) and save mention of some other tags for the next book.

In Book Two, you might make the sister (briefly mentioned in Book One) a major character who gets the protagonist involved with the latest adventure.

In Book Three you might give a brief mention, "I'd spent the last month visiting with my sister and now..." and then have another character show up that wasn't connected with Books One or Two.

In Book Four you might bring in a minor character from Book Three as a romantic lead, and carry that relationship all the way through to Book Seven, then have them break up and have the romantic lead return in Book Eleven.

The same principle goes for any non-core tags from previous novels in your series, not just recurring characters. For example in Book Five you might say, "I hadn't been in this neighborhood in several months, and the last time I'd been dressed as a harlequin and carrying a broadsword." (Referring to something that happened in Book Two.)

Spread Tags Out and Use Them When They're Appropriate

My friend is correct that this particular author has a habit of giving chunks of exposition about the characters ranks, titles, jobs, etc. Often - even USUALLY - in the first page of the story. I'm sure that one of the reasons the author does it is that this character's titles and jobs are funny and a bit shocking.

Remember that you have a whole book to pull out your Core Tags as well as the tags you want to carry over from the previous books.

Begin with a gripping lead that pulls your reader in, and use your tags when they're appropriate.

We don't need to know that Kinsey Millhone prefers white wine until someone offers her a drink. We don't need to see her all-purpose black dress until the plot calls on her to go somewhere she can't wear blue jeans. Then she can pull it out of the backseat of her VW, slip it on and remark on how durable it is. We don't hear about her jogging until she gets up in the morning and drags on her sneakers on, or decides to skip the jog because she's too beat up.

Captain Kirk doesn't start Star Trek by carrying on about how Spock thinks in terms of "logical" and "not logical." But somewhere in nearly every episode, the plot will give Spock an excuse to pull out his classic tag-line.

Write Softly and Carry a Big Tag

There's no need to announce your tags. You don't have to point, wave and shout, "Hey, here's one of my protagonist's tags."

If in chapter two, Bernie goes into a bar and orders Perrier, the seasoned reader of "Mrs. Rhodenbarr's boy" will say, "Uh oh! Bernie's not drinking - he must have a job tonight!" It might take a few paragraphs before Block mentions that Bernie abstains before robberies. In fact, savvy writer that he is, he often waits a few pages or even until the next scene. Meanwhile the reader gets to feel warm and fuzzy because they know something.

The new reader might not pick up on the fact that you're using a tag this time, but the next time they read one of your books, they'll notice and recognize it.

The second time I read a Pitt novel and was told about Thomas's bulging pockets, I said, "Oh yeah, he's always like that, isn't he? When Aunt Vespacia showed up for the second time, I was thrilled. "This will be good, she's a hoot." Within a book or two I was hoping the characters would find an excuse to go visit her.

When I started this post I'd planned to address the vanity issue. Then I realized that the way the author showed her tags was a large part of my buddy's problem. I'll get to the vanity issue tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. good advice, Lemur, deserves a tweet
    Personally as a reader I'm deaf and blind to tags and if it's a series it takes me a couple of books to 'get the point'. Surprise, surprise - I also struggle with these,as you say, core tags, becuase I completely forget about it.
    I need to learn to use them appropriately :)