I had a really tough day at work, so my post today will be a bit shorter than I planned. I will have to ask you to help me out to make it interesting.
I looked through the questions you guys left on my lj. I'll try to do my best :)
Two things to keep in mind, when it comes to characters. First, when most people remember characters, they only recall one or two character traits. Of these two character traits, one will be primary and the other secondary. These two character traits often do not describe physical appearance. This seems like a contradiction, but follow me for the time being.
Let's take Three Musketeers. Some wonderful characterization there. How about physical traits? Let's see, I'm thinking of a character who is of average height and handsome. Well, that's no good. They are all of average height and handsome, mostly.
How about handsome and in good physical shape? Nope, doesn't work either. How about elegant and brooding? That's most likely Atos. What about "young and passionate"? Well, that's obviously d'Artagnian.
Let's do another one. I'm thinking of the Pirates of the Carribean. Young and handsome. Well, it could be Will. Or it could be James Norrighton. He is sort of young and handsome. It could be Elizabeth Swann for all we know. A woman can be handsome.
How about young and idealistic? Will Turner.
Dark and crazy? Jack Sparrow
Steadfast and honorable? James Norrington.
What changed? We added a psychological characteristic. We evaluated the character. We let a little bit of the personality show. And that brings us to point number two: when describing a character it helps to remember who is looking at him.
Your view point character is like a compass. He helps the reader navigate through your narrative. We know who is good and who is bad, because the view point character helps us decide. So as your protagonist goes through the story, use him to evaluate people he meets.
To summarize: pick one or two dominant traits to help "tag" the character in the reader's mind and keep in mind the emotion your main character will feel.
I just had a distinct feeling I'm spouting nonsense. I really am a bit tired.
Let's have some fun:
Bob is a spear carrier. We want him to dramatically die later and we want the reader to feel his loss. But we only have a paragraph to describe him.
Bob stood at the entrance, leaning lightly on his spear. He had an easy smile and warm eyes and every morning, as Poopsie passed through the gates dreading the stuffy corridors and snide remarks awaiting him in the Palace staff bureau, Bob always waved at him. "Don't let the toads get you down today." Part of Poopsie knew it was a corny thing to say, but a larger part of him was grateful, for he knew that even if his day was completely black, he had a least one friend.
Okay so I cheated a bit by throwing Poopsie's characterization in there too, but the fact remains: if I say, easy smile, warm eyes, nice guy, the reader will likely think Bob. I tagged him. And I made it painful to kill him. Because if it doesn't hurt a little bit, even when you're killing a villain, you might want to go back and rework the characterization a bit. Characters tend to grow on you and when they don't, well, there might be a problem.
What I described here is just the most basic groundwork, the very bones of the character on which you can layer and layer until you flesh them out. *
So to make y'all work and help me make sense of this post, I challenge you to pick a character from your work and give him/her Aunt Hilda.
The character can either a) love and like Aunt Hilda, b) love but be driven batty by her, or c) dislike her.
Describe Aunt Hilda in one paragraph and we all will try to guess how the character feels toward her from your description.
*On my livejournal at http://ilona_andrews.livejournal.com there is a snippet of a confrontation between two characters. One I tagged big and opportunistic and the other tagged blond,deadly, and frightening. I was playing with archetypes, so sue me :P It took me forever to work through that scene but you can sort of see how tagging a character translates into bigger things. It probably won't make much sense, but keep in mind, we're looking at character work only.