In my July post, She Ran Her Fingers Through Her Long, Blonde Hair, I made some suggestions on how to describe a character's traits. In my April post, Point of View Part 2 - Examples, I provided some examples on how to maintain a character's perspective and personality through the choice of Point of View (POV).
Both posts discussed different aspects of a character--their physical traits and their perspective. Most important, as a writer, you must consistently maintain all aspects of your character.
Yep. All aspects.
If your character has red hair and green eyes on page one, then they had better have red hair and green eyes on page 100 and page 500. (Unless your character must suddenly dye their hair as part of a get-away scheme.
Character traits can fulfill multiple purposes in your novel.
Individual qualities help the reader to distinguish character A from B from C (Bob hates snakes, Joe loves donuts, Dave is claustrophobic).
The dialogue will blossom into full-colour if each character has a unique way of speaking. (Bob cracks jokes, especially when he's nervous, Joe over-uses food metaphors, and Dave likes to use big words to prove how smart he is.)
"Oh, look, my favourite snake," said Bob. "I don't know why the asps didn't drop out of the ceiling sooner!"
"Anyone got a rat?" said Joe. "Because we could wave a rat in front of it, distract it, you know? Or a donut? For all we know snakes love donuts."
"Seriously?" said Bob. "Donuts and Rats? Is that what you're going with?"
"Don't move!" said Dave. "Although only 4% of bites from Vipera aspis are fatal, the victim can experience extreme pain."
Imagine, having to delete each dialogue tag. Would you still be able to tell which character was speaking? If you can't (not even a little) then you should probably put more thought into the individual speech patterns for your characters.
Another writer technique is to jack up the tension and give your characters more to fight for by using their weaknesses to torture them.
For example, since Dave is claustrophobic, torture him by forcing him to crawl through an air vent, or hide in a tiny closet, or crawl under a collapsed building to save his true love. Make sure the reader remembers that Dave is claustrophobic, because then the trapped-in-a-tiny-space scene will be infused with all-the-more tension.
The more heroic, stubborn, enigmatic, romantic, or determined your character behaves, the more your reader will root for them. Think Harry Potter and all of the ways that he overcomes adversity to face obstacles like Voldemort.
If your character is stubborn with her friends, stubborn with her parents, and stubborn at work, then she had better be stubborn when her BFF arrives in the ER and needs an advocate. During that crisis, she had better show some cracks due to pressure, but she also has to act in a consistent manner.
Because if your character loses consistency, then you will lose your reader.
"It's the structure that saves us," is one of those mantras I live by. Keep track of all of your characters' weaknesses and strengths, loves and hates. Use a notebook, a spreadsheet, or one of those writing software programs to track the details.
Feel free to use these traits just as often to put your character in dire situations as you do to provide your character with the tools to save the day. And your reader will be flipping pages waiting to hear what happens next.
The reader will care about your characters. Ultimately, that's a writer's main goal.
Before setting and atmosphere.
Before marketing demographics and sentence structure.
Make the reader care. Because when you're consistent with all of the pieces that make up a character, the reader will feel as though they know your character, and would invite them for coffee if they could.
Do it now
If you haven't already, jot down a list of all of your character's most important traits.
Now write a scene where your main character is forced to either:
a) confront their worst fear,
b) lose the person they couldn't possibly live without, OR
c) lose a piece of themselves that matters most. (surgeon loses his hand, musician loses their hearing, etc)