I wonder if when talking about characters (in a book with a third perspective narrator) one can list their personality traits. I realize how that might be taking something away from the story, as I think perhaps character traits should come out naturally within the story. Though, I don't know, which is why I'm asking. Maybe listing a character's traits in a creative way is delightfully informative and good for the story and it's progression?

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    I think this is a bit broad, what exactly is a "trait"? Do you mean describing them physically, or how they handle situations? Their favourite food, or their abilities? Considering a "trait" is defined as: "a distinguishing quality or characteristic, typically one belonging to a person", could you be more specific? – Erdrik Ironrose Mar 12 at 17:32
  • In fiction, usually there's a plot and/or theme. If a list of traits advances the plot and/or theme, then that's a compelling reason to do it. If listing traits does not advance the plot and/or theme, that's a compelling reason to not do it. – Todd Wilcox Mar 12 at 17:39
  • @ErdrikIronrose I see what you mean. I was talking about personality traits. – A. Kvåle Mar 12 at 17:42
  • You can find many examples of character's personal descriptions in literature, but they are never a "comma-separated list" of traits. Good description is like a little story an author tells about a character, a story interesting by itself. – Alexander Mar 12 at 18:02

Character traits should be seen. Absolutely. Being told that someone is smart isn't enough - he has to use his brains. However, can you sometimes tell rather than show traits? Let me show you some positive examples:

"This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him." - The Hobbit, J.R.R.Tolkien

Tolkien sets up an image, establishes Bilbo as being a certain kind of character. This image is important because Tolkien then proceeds to topple it over: Bilbo obviously does go on an adventure, and does quite a few unexpected things.

"Glorfindel was tall and straight; his hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy; his eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music; on his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength." - The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Glorfindel is a side character. We never really get to see him fearless, joyful, wise and strong. At best, we get a glimpse. So we might as well be told. However, the description doesn't merely serve to tell us about Glorfindel: it sets the mood for the scene, tells us what kind of people are gathered around Elrond's table. Glorfindel is an example.

Note also the language. Compare "Glorfindel was smart and strong" to "on his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength". Compare "Bilbo was a rather boring person" to "you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him". It matters how you choose to describe character traits.

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    Your last paragraph is solid gold. Thank you for articulating that so well. – Todd Wilcox Mar 12 at 18:08
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    As long as you remember, this is how the narrator views the person, and not how the character perceives themselves, or the world does. – Ryan The Leach Mar 13 at 7:57
  • I like that you included Glorfindel in the example: I have been a big Tolkien fan for a long time and I have always thought that one of his biggest weaknesses as a writer was his tendency to list character traits when you first meet a character, particularly with minor characters, which sometimes leaves the reader with nothing but a list to try to remember and associate with a strange sounding name. It is one of the barriers non fantasy readers often have when approaching Lord Of The Rings. – JBiggs Mar 13 at 15:36
  • @JBiggs listing the character's traits when you first meet a character was a common practice in medieval literature, which was one of Tolkien's sources of inspiration. – Galastel Mar 13 at 16:28
  • @Galastel yeah, I know. He was directly inspired by the epic poems and medieval lore he studied. It provided some really awesome things that came through in his writing. I just feel that the lists of character attributes just didn't work very well (at least in LOTR. In The Hobbit he kept things more concise and trimmed down and didn't allow himself the flowery excess that sometimes became burdensome later.) – JBiggs Mar 13 at 16:32

I only like including something questionable - if it serves a second purpose. Then, I love when a line does multiple things. But I think you can't always find that second and third purpose necessarily until a later draft.

So, I might start in my first draft with: 'He was a funny boy, he was good hearted, and studious. He had hair that was blond but that took on a greenish tint from his swims in the lake, and he had blue eyes in a pale face.'

I would work with that. The blue eyes in the pale face with the greenish hair would get played with, to become patches of blue sky, in clouds of white, ringed with leafy trees. Looking at him was like lying on the ground looking up, that this was what person thought of, when they looked at him. I'd say that this was a funny effect, funny, like the little boy was funny, almost as if he pretended to be the world around him, and he must have known that he had that effect. maybe he'd even studied it. Who knows? He seemed to study everything.

-I'd work with it like that. Not a laundry list, but something that feels like it has multiple angles happening at the same time.

Having said that, keeping it simple (like a laundry list) can work, but maybe make that a 'feature not a bug.' In other words, if it becomes part of your style, use it in such a way that the reader expects it. We're good at learning code.

(Disclaimer: I've been attempting my first fiction book since last summer.)

  • In general, if I see a laundry list I think: "Oh no... here comes work". Followed closely by my dumping the cognitive load of remembering it onto a piece of paper or an electronic device. If it's an author throwing that cognitive load at me instead of my wife, I am quite likely to close the book right there and then. Books are cheap, my time is not. – JBiggs Mar 13 at 16:06

Short Answer: Lists Are Bad

If you had to describe a friend of yours to someone who hasn't met them, and you don't have a lot of time, would you do it in the form of a list of attributes? I doubt it. There may be exceptions, but most people would keep it very simple and only say one or two things about them which are pertinent to the particular listener they are talking to.

"You'll like Mitch, he's really chill." Literally a one word description with the absolutely most pertinent information. Maybe you might include something that shows a connection to the listener. "You'll like Mitch, he's really chill. Big football guy too." Ok now, we have two items on our list. 99% of the time, in real life, we do not list attributes of people to other people. When we do, that is a bad sign.

"Oh you'll love him dear, he is an accountant and makes good money and he's only been married once, and he has no children, and he lives in Manhattan! Good family too!"

You can almost hear the annoying, pushy aunt or mom trying to push her single daughter or niece into a very unwanted blind date with a guy who looks like a turtle. Generally in real life, a list of attributes is a warning sign!

In a book, a list is possibly even more bad. Why? Because a list places a cognitive load on the reader. Lists are functional things we have to deal with in places like work or when doing chores. They are tough to remember so we write them down, we do not like to keep them in our head for four (or fourty) pages while simultaneously trying to process the rest of the story we are reading. This gives your reader a headache.

Lists are not how we think about things. We are not computers. If we see a car, most people go: "Hmm, I like it, it looks cool." or "It looks fast." 90% of humanity does not go "I see it has the 17 inch wheels, the stripe package, has a fuel economy of approximately 17 MPG highway which isn't great, and has a good torque curve." This is why "Rainman" was an unusual character, because most people don't think in lists. They think in single word terms that are usually linked to feelings, not facts.

Characters in a book ideally will "feel" real to the reader, which means that they will observe how that character acts and then decide for themselves exactly what attributes that character has, exactly the way they interact with a new person in real life! Having a list of character attributes isn't even all that helpful to an author (in my opinion) because it constrains the writer as they are trying to imagine what the character does in each scene. Instead of freeing up their imagination to really project what this person they feel they know might do, they have to shut down the creative side of the brain to use the logical side to check against their list and make sure they are checking boxes. Instant shut down of writing "flow" (at least to me; some people may be different).

People want to identify with a character, which means they want them to be relate-able and seem real. They want to "approach" that character on their own terms, and come up with their own list of attributes as they experience the character. They want the character to behave in complex but understandable ways that mimic actual people, and they don't want to have to try to remember a lot of lists the author keeps throwing at them, no matter how poetic you make the list sound. (Someone brought in Tolkien, which is a good example of a guy who liked to write lists of character attributes, and as a big fan of his, I would say it is probably THE worst thing about his writing; don't copy that.)

So in short: just describe what the character does and how they feel about things and what they say and let your reader make their own lists.

  • I agree with you, but does the excerpt from my book work well even with a list? -- "It felt unfair, but then again, the matters of a jarl isn’t really dealt with best when dealt with by a juvenile. But of course, Nick didn’t think so. He thought he had it in him, even at the young age he was in. He thought he was capable of leading, controlling the region and aiding the King. He wasn’t, not yet. He was strong, brave, hardy and decisive, but he lacked discipline, experience, wisdom and humbleness. So for now, Nick would have to chop the logs, outside the longhouse." – A. Kvåle Mar 14 at 20:45
  • @A.Kvåle, you actually have three lists in a row there, which caused me to slow down, stop, and then try to reconcile what I had just read. List 1: what he thinks he is capable of. List 2: traits the character possesses. List 3: traits he lacks. Give some breathing room between these lists if you must include them at all. Better yet, show how the character possesses the traits or lacks them without telling what they are. Just my two cents. ;-) – JBiggs Mar 14 at 23:31
  • Yes, I thought so too eventually, which is why I removed that part and switched it out with something else, still fitting. I will abstain from using lists in the future, or at least try :-)) – A. Kvåle Mar 16 at 9:10
  • Though, I wonder, is it allowed to write lists concerning the actual appearance of a character, or in my case a race, like here. -- "Nick hadn’t even seen an orc, or at least not a real one. He had seen many drawings, illustrating their green skin, bulging muscles, protruding bones, lion like teeth, blazing eyes and braided black hair". – A. Kvåle Mar 16 at 9:52
  • I'm sure it's possible to do a list when describing appearance that reads smoothly in context. I personally always try to limit myself to no more than three items at a time if I do this. To me three is kind of the magic number that keeps it easy to read and continue moving through the prose. Good picture painting, btw, I like the lion like teeth and blazing eyes. – JBiggs Mar 16 at 14:07

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