If you haven’t read last week’s post, Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags, Part 1: Find a Name, go back there now to get caught up. Otherwise, we’ll press on without further preamble…
This is probably the most important step.
Tag seems to be the term generally used. It means that the character is next equipped with something that the reader can readily recognize each time the actor appears on the scene.
A simple example of an external tag for purposes of illustration might be the one-legged old rascal in Treasure Island. The wooden leg is the thing that is remembered, hence it can be considered the tag.
External tags are peculiarities of appearance, manner, voice, clothing, hobby, etc. Incidentally, it might be wise to neglect wooden legs, because editors have a horror of cripples in yarns. This taboo against cripples is worth remembering, because it seems to be ironclad.*
Tagging is reliable stuff, apparently, judging by how much it is used in fiction, plays, radio, movies, books. The motion pictures usually apply a very obnoxious form of external tag to one or more minor characters. A supporting player in a film who goes around trying to do something—work a magic trick, for instance—throughout the picture is an example of such a tag.
If the character is a minor one in the story, it seems possible to hang on a very obvious, even humorous, tag.
If the character is the lead—be careful.
Be wary within limits, that is… Don’t make the tag too goofy, although the manner of handling may have a great deal to do with whether the tag makes the character seem silly or not. But make it interesting and intriguing enough to be what it is supposed to be—a label.
As a further example of varyingly bizarre tags which are made credible, it might be convenient to return to Rex Stout and his Nero Wolfe character. The character is a tremendously fat man—which is a not-so-zany tag. But Wolfe also raises orchids, and will not be disturbed by absolutely anything when tending them. He drinks prodigious amounts of beer, which must be exactly right as to temperature. He has a ridiculous horror of any moving vehicle. He is a nut on food… which, incidentally, is not the full list of tags on this character, but the job is done quite entertainingly. The moment Wolfe comes onto a scene, one of the tags is waved like a flag, so that there is no doubt about who has appeared.
That last statement is the idea.
Wave the tag. It is supposed to be an unmistakable label by which the reader can recognize the character instantly.
Frederick Nebel, in a series of good pulp yarns he once did for Black Mask, used a minor character, a cop, who ambled through the yarns devoting his time to snitching things to eat, and it was entertaining. After stepping into the slick magazines—which he did quite successfully—Nebel refined the tagging device somewhat. As example, in a recent short, he used a grandmother who devoted herself assiduously to eavesdropping, the eavesdropping being an obvious character tag.
If the tag can be used in the plot of the yarn, so much the better. The best yarns appear to be those in which there is no deadwood, so if the tag pasted on a character should happen to be the fact that he is an amateur camera fan, it might help a great deal if the fact can be made use of in the yarn—possibly the knowledge of photographic chemistry enables him to recognize a poisonous chemical which has been used for the murder method, and thus thwart the villain somehow.
In Doc Savage Magazine, a pulp, this external tagging has been utilized freely. One of the characters is always dressed in the height of sartorial perfection, the fancy clothes being his tag. Another character has one of his tags following around after him; it’s a pet pig. A third uses words of the most ungodly length, jawbreakers nobody can understand, at the slightest excuse. And Doc himself has been labelled freely with typical hero tags—great size, bronzed skin, compelling flake-gold eyes, quiet manner, amazing strength, fabulous knowledge of various subjects.
The variety of available tags seems to be legion. One of the characters can hate something intensely and spend his spare time grumbling about it. Or he may have a pet peeve on yet another character in the story and start a squabble at every slight opportunity.
Now… How to dig up these external tags?… This is somewhat more difficult than finding a name. Unfortunately, there is no thesaurus of character tags.
Some professional writers, in order to simplify the problem, assemble tags as they come across them and file them away on indexed cards. The biographies of famous persons are sometimes used as source material for character tags.
Perhaps there is no way of solving the problem except to sit in front of a typewriter and write down different possibilities until one happens along and clicks.
It may prove wise to give some thought to the character tag before deciding definitely to use it… That is, can it be used conveniently in the story? It’s embarrassing to think up a swell, intriguing tag, then find out that the thing will not fit in at all with the plot or the action of the story.
Acquiring the habit of looking for character labels when reading published yarns may be a help. The name writers, the ones who appear issue after issue in the pulps and the slicks, appear to be the ones who use the most character tags.
Often more than one tag is hung on a character. There seems to be no rule against it.
But for simplicity of handling, it might prove more feasible to devise one main tag, and wave that one like a flag whenever the character moves on the scene. Then the other tags can be subordinated and used whenever convenient.
In summary: The tag is simply something that identifies the character throughout the story. If, for instance, it should be decided to give Clancy, the cop, some foot-trouble for his tag, it might start out by having him getting a new pair of shoes near the opening of the yarn, a special pair of shoes which he knows will relieve his feet. On Clancy’s next appearance, he has the shoes on, and they’re wonderful. Next appearance, the shoes aren’t wonderful, and they hurt like hell. Then he takes them off. Finally he winds up carrying them. and possibly in the climax he uses one of them to bean the villain. God knows how many times that one has been used, with slight variation.
Now, the next step in making a character:
Next week… THIRD—FIND SOMETHING TO GO INSIDE
* Trust me, I’ll be circling back to this bit of flagrant insensitivity in the weeks ahead, but, yeah… you stay classy 1940.