L.J. Martin on Characterization
My faithful Random House defines character as:
The aggregate of features or traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.
The key here is individual nature. Ethan may swagger while the cackler struts. Habits, looks, actions, reactions, likes and dislikes, speech and laughter, on and on and on are the ingredients that make each of us different from our fellow human beings. Your characters should portray the same differences.
Like time and place, these character traits should be given to the reader in small doses and in a way so that he comes to like or dislike your character as he would if he met him on the street. Those who form fair opinions about people usually take some time to do so. First impressions aren't always the right ones. Give your characters some time to impress the reader with their individual personalities.
Character traits can be shown by what your character does, how he acts and reacts.
Ethan dismounted and loosened the cinch so the lathered roan could catch its breath. Mopping the seat from his brow with the back of his hand, he glanced at the afternoon sky. Indian summer, still no sign of storm. But it would come. Digging a handful of grain out of a saddlebag, he offered it in his palm. The big roan mouthed it as Ethan scratched the horse's ears with his free hand.
You get one kind of impression about Ethan from the above few lines. What if we'd written:
Ethan dismounted and pulled the cinch tighter. The roan had been acting up the last few miles. It would serve the knot head right to stand with a binding cinch while Ethan got a beer. Hell, Ethan hadn't eaten or wet his throat either. The horse could wait.
Does that give you a different opinion of Ethan's character?
The trail-tough cowhand rubbed the black whisker stubble on his chin with a knotted callused hand. "That'll do."
The above lines give you one impression. What if we'd written:
The cowboy looked from side to side, shifting his eyes as he spoke, not looking at the bartender. "I'll bet the beer's flat," he mumbled so low the bartender had to lean forward to hear.
The cowboy rubbed the soft blond fuzz on his chin. "That sounds real fine. You know, I haven't had a beer since the last time I was in St. Louis. I've got an aunt in St. Louis. Larapin' fine lady. Why, I remember one time. . . ."
Character is what's done and said by your players. Keep their character consistent. That's not to say that your good guy should be all good or your bad guy should be all bad. Few people are all one or the other.
Character can be shown by what your player thinks.
Remember, if you write in the first person, you can get inside the head of that first person narrator, but no one else. If a character says what he thinks, you're getting inside their heads via dialog.
If you write third person omniscient, you can get inside the head of any of your characters to see what they think, merely by going there.
What a character thinks when you internalize, or when he says what he thinks in dialogue, or what others think or say about him, form the readers opinion of him. That's not to say if one of your characters says another is a drifter and a bum, that he is. If the reader knows the character of the accuser, sometimes his opinion is the last the reader will believe.
Just like real life.
What he looks like, what his habits are, what he thinks, says, and does, or doesn't say and doesn't do, establishes character.