Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 05/12/2022

Episode 17: Wave Those Tags

by Lester Dent

From The Writer’s 1940 Year Book

During the past five years, Lester Dent has sold 7,000,000 words of fiction at an average price of 1 & 1/2 cents. In this article he gives some hard won information on creating characters.

This, again, is a personal opinion…

Here is my formula for creating characters to put in fiction yarns.

Now… before launching out on this character blueprint, it might be a good idea to borrow some sales-psychology and build up the thing a little. To show, in other words, that it’ll work—that it is being used successfully.

Though there seems to be some wariness about admitting it, most writers apparently work to formula to a great extent. Most pulp writers have devised a sure-fire masterplot, and have been writing and selling the same yarn over and over for years. A surprising number of the slick authors seem to do the same thing. And there appears to be an inclination among editors to have their own idea of a formula for a yarn, and not buy anything that doesn’t fit. They call this their groove, or the slant.

So probably the first thing to do is to try to show that stuff written to formula will sell. This might be proved by—

(Editor’s Note: We can think of a better way. Here it is:

(Two years or so ago, the Writer’s Digest Yearbook published on article of Dent’s which gave his masterplot for a pulp fiction yarn of six thousand words. At the time, Dent was living on his schooner and hunting pirate treasure in the Caribbean Sea, and we had some difficulty getting the article—in fact, the Miami. Florida, police department cooperated by picking Dent up and dragging him to the long-distance telephone so that we could order the piece. The only instance of which we know where an author got such cooperation.

Following publication of Dent’s masterplot article, the Writer’s Digest received several hundred letters from new writers who had written and sold their first story to the masterplot. These results were unprecedented.

We hope this article will do as much for the characterizing problem as the masterplot thing did for the plotting problem.)

In order to write a story, it seems best to start with a plot and characters. Yarns can be written without either one, but it may be a little difficult to make a living selling them.

Whether the plot comes first, or the characters, seems to be a subject for argument. One method is to build the characters, then dope out a plot in which they strut their stuff in their respective manners. The other system is to construct the plot, then manufacture characters to fit it. Possibly an argument can be avoided by saying: start out the way that seems most convenient. Professional writers make both systems work. Most of them apparently mix the two systems.

Possibly the initial step in creating a character should be:

Find a Name

It is very doubtful if the name is the most important step in creating a character—but it does seem to be the natural first tiling to do.

Names are convenient as handles. But it helps if the characterizing doesn’t stop with merely finding a name. One of the loudest squawks from editors is that so many characters are just names being dragged through yarns.

Making the name of the character different from that of any other actor in the story is usually a good idea. Should there be Morgans, Mermans and Murtons in the yarn, somebody may be inclined to become confused.

It may also be nice to have the name sort of express the nature of the character—convey some suggestion as to his manner, appearance, nationality, occupation, or something. This gag appears to be quite widely used.

Examples: Dashiell Hammett used a detective character named Spade, a hard digging instrument quite in keeping with the name… Another writer of whodunnits, Rex Stout, makes use of predatory animals as a name source —*Nero Wolfe* and Tecumseh Fox being two instances. A further analytical dissection of these last two names might lead to the surmise that, in the case of Nero Wolfe, the name Nero was used because it conveys the idea of a guy who is inclined to fiddle while Rome burns, which the fiction character at times apparently, although never actually, does. The name Nero might also have certain inherent leonine qualities. The Tecumseh Fox name might be analyzed as implying a man who was as sturdy and inscrutable as the old Indian chief, externally, while actually being as sly as a fox… Erle Stanley Gardner has had great success with a character named Perry Mason, although here an analysis might approach conjecture. A mason is a builder, and the word parry means to fend off; which is the way the character works— fending off numerous enemies while building his cases. (Expert Mind Reading, Park Central Hotel. One Flight Up. Ask for Lester. Advt.)

If heroes have manly names, it may help.

Taking a thesaurus and looking up words with strong, manly meanings, then improvising upon them, is a trick worth trying.

In the pulps, this approach to name-making often is obvious. Pulp hacks are guilty of characters with such names as Click Rush and Mace and Lash.

Names of flowers and pretty things are frequently used for the beautiful young heroine in the yam. The thesaurus could be consulted for these, too.

A reliable old gag for getting names for foreign characters is to open an atlas, look at the map of his native country and pick out a town, river, mountain or anything that has the flavor, and use that.

Villains may be made to sound like rascals by using harsh, unpleasant names. Example: Didn’t Hammett use a villain named Gutman?

A good hissy, snaky sounding name has helped make many a villain.

Telephone books can be a source of names, or of confusion.

The gag of using expressive names, while a much-used one, might possibly be overdone. The comic strips make use of it to an extreme degree, but editors of fiction magazines may prefer it tamed down a little, made more subtle.

Now… here is the next move in creating a character:

Find an External Tag

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 is used in fiction, plays, radio, movies, books. The motion pictures usually apply a very obvious 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, (aw, come on; pick a card) 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 numerous tag.

If the character is the lead—be careful.

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 pasted on this character, but the job is done 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. For 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 are 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.

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 at another character in the story and start a squabble at every slight opportunity.

Now… How to dig up these external tags?… This is 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. Biographies of famous persons can be used as source material for character tags.

Perhaps there is no better 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. Why then shouldn’t you?

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 hew many times that one has been used, with slight variations.

Now, the next step in making a character:

Find the Raison D’etre

This seems to be a tougher one.

But it’s important.

The something inside the character isn’t solid and readily grasped, as are the external tags. Abstract is probably the word to use. So an attempt to explain what goes inside may do one of three things— fail to explain anything, ball it all up, or sound asinine.

An approach to the problem can be made by going back and thinking about the character, starting at birth and following right through, so as to get the feeling of knowing just how the character happened to be a certain kind of a person.

In the pulps, seems this doesn’t have to be very subtle. The hero’s sister is killed by crooks, and so he turns detective and is ever-after the implacable enemy of crooks. Slight variations of this old one are run ragged in the pulps, and in a slightly refined state, again run ragged in the slicks.

The whole idea is to dope out some reason for the character acting like a hero, a villain, or whatever.

While this is being done, it may prove convenient to concoct a reason for the character carrying the external tag or tags which had been previously devised. In the pulps, the reason can be simple: Clancy, the cop, has walked a beat so long he’s got flat feet, and therefore foot-trouble—and because he’s walked the beat so long, he has a consuming ambition to get in the detective bureau and show up these young school-trained cops who lack the Clancy experience. This ambition is what drives Clancy to do the things he does in the yarn. Now and then somebody even dresses this one up and sells it to the slicks.

What is inside the character, his raison d’etre, seems to be highly vital. It should tie in with the motivation of the story, help furnish the reasons for things happening.

The higher the quality of the story, the more important what is inside the character, that is, what motivates him.

And the last step:

Make Use of Characterization Tricks in Writing the Story

Wave the tags.

It helps to introduce the hero very early—in the first paragraph, usually — and have him strut his stuff, because first impressions are the strongest. This is just about No. 1 writing rule in the pulps.

A hero may be built up by having the other characters refer to him in terms of admiration or awe. The pitfall here seems to be that the references can be made over-dramatic to the extent that the device may strike somebody as obvious and silly. Villains may be built as villains in the same fashion, by having other characters mention their dastardly nature, their previous evil deeds.

Have the hero behave like a hero when faced by trouble.

Hero should stay human, though. He can get as scared as the next guy, but his courage will carry him through.

Minor characters can also be built by having the other actors refer to them, either to their external tag, or to the kind of stuff that is inside them.

Often quite a build-up can be given a character before he or she even makes a personal appearance in the story. This device is difficult to employ successfully in shorts, but it is often used in longer pieces.

It is easy to overlook the simplest must of all, that of having the actors keep in character. The hero can hardly go around kicking dogs and making nasty cracks to people weaker than himself. If he makes a nasty remark to a weak and helpless person, he’s a cad as far as the reader is concerned. If he stands up to the big, mean boss and makes nasty cracks, that is different.

And it goes without saying that the villain should conduct himself in a thoroughly villainous fashion. There are black villains, and half-likeable villains. The black villains never do or say anything pleasant. The half-likeable cads may be pretty good guys, but just weak. The slicks seem to prefer this type of villain, but the pulps want ’em black.

It does not seem to be a good idea to have the villain become too melodramatic in his villainy. If his badness can be spread out, if he can be kept consistently bad, the same effect may be achieved with out the chance of somebody bursting out laughing.

There are many tricks for getting character effects, but probably the best way of securing them is to wade through published material, purloin what seems good, and adapt the idea a little.

Always remembering: WAVE THAT TAG.