Pigeonholing Your Characters

Wow, it sounds like a bad thing when I put it that way in the title. And the first time I heard this technique described, I thought it was stupid. I still do, sort of.

Something like two years ago, my fiance suggested I assign descriptions to each of my characters and always stick with them—one character could be catlike, another rugged, still another perky. And whenever I would describe a particular character, I would always use the same descriptors and metaphors.

I scoffed and said no way.

Then, this summer, when I was reading over Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal, I came across this very technique, described as tags and traits in his post about Characters:

TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you’re putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you’ll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character…

TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. Harry’s traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader’s benefit, so that it’s easy to imagine Harry when the story pace is really rolling.

When I saw it again, I dismissed it as idiotic and annoying for the reader. For example, I love J. K. Rowling, but I get so sick of hearing about Ron’s long nose and freckles. Ginny’s bright brown eyes start to bug me. And don’t even get me started on Harry’s green eyes and untidy hair. Even Harry got tired of hearing about them.

Here’s what’s irritating about those descriptions: I REMEMBER THEM. As much as it irks me to reread the same imagery, it does a good job of planting the characters in our brains.

And the really, deeply annoying thing? Last week, I caught myself writing this way unconsciously. A character made her last entrance in my book, and I again used the word “immaculate” to describe her appearance. I didn’t even notice that I’d done it until I reread the paragraph.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d been doing it the whole time. Apparently, tags and traits worm their way into the subconscious so deeply that you use them without even wanting to do so.

Have you ever conditioned your readers like this? Was it deliberate, or did you realize you’ve been conditioned to condition?

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One thought on “Pigeonholing Your Characters

  1. Excellent observations, and something I probably did/do half-assed because I didn’t know about it. Now that I do, I’ll be more aware of it and do or not do it on purpose! Thanks. 🙂

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