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?
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.
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.)
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.