[NOTE: I originally posted this on the AR blog on Oct 10 2013, but I decided to move it here. Fair warning, it gets kinda rant-ey.]
I believe that every character in any kind of story should have an appearance that sticks with you throughout the whole story. Whenever a character shows up, you should at the very least know what they look like. This isn’t a novel idea; it’s a given in good writing. And yet… it isn’t.
I often see novels deal with a character’s description in a single paragraph–or less. The reader is required to memorize each character’s appearance soon after their debut, and that’s it; no more reminders for you. Either you relate this name with this description right now, or you’re screwed in the future. The next time that character shows up, you may end up with a talking (and faceless) head, no idea what it’s supposed to look like. This issue exacerbates when a big cast of characters (say 20+) is at play.
Well, I personally don’t have a great memory, so while reading a novel I’ve often found myself wondering, “what does this character look like again?”, or worse, “who the hell is this one again?!” cause I’ll be darned if I recall what a single short paragraph said about this fella 200 pages ago.
My point is that it’s a common practice to dispose of a character’s description like it was some sort of chore, when a character’s appearance should actually be a constant aspect of characterization. Not only should a character’s aspect be memorable, it should be reinforced because it’s often important to the character as a whole, its actions and attitude. It shouldn’t be a chore to either describe or recall a character’s appearance. I feel that if you haven’t had the need to return to your character’s appearance in dozens and dozens of pages, you are simply doing characterization wrong. Your characters may as well be faceless talking heads for all that it matters.
A novel isn’t a visual medium like film or comics where you can take visuals for granted. “Show, don’t tell” applies to everything: not only places or actions, but also your damn characters. To me, each character should have at least one trait, one aspect that you cannot help but describe every other scene whenever you turn your camera to that character, as superficial and trivial as it may seem at first glance. Simply because that element is a part of what that character is. The more descriptive you are with a character the more memorable it is, of course. But not if you only do it in a single paragraph on the first chapter. There should be a minimum of characterization throughout the entire story. That is what is required to keep a character alive in the reader’s mind, and standing out from the rest.
And that is what I call Character Traits. [Here I’m talking about the name of the section in ARM 0.1. -C.]
I’ve ended up with an extensive cast of characters, most of which are crucial to the story I want to tell. I would say it’s a natural effect of the “global” scope of the story. However, I believe that each of them has to have something that lets them stand out from the crowd of characters. While there are several characters that I “see” very clearly in my mind, there are several characters without a clear enough appearance yet. I want to give them the traits that I feel are best suited to them, and thus make them as clear and memorable in my mind as possible–so their characterization becomes a joy instead of a chore.