Creating Compelling Characters: The 3-2-5 Rule

Sep 24, 2010

When I took Brandon Sanderson's Awesomest Writing Class Ever, I learned that I sucked at creating characters.

I thought back through my previous books and stories, and saw flat, boring, uncomplicated, and uncompelling characters. I reread my notes from that particular class multiple times, and distilled the character section down to what I'm going to call the 3-2-5 rule of characters. Basically, it's a simple formula for creating forceful, convincing characters that demand investment from a reader.

There are 3 things you need to think about when creating your characters:

Who are they, who are they becoming, and what stands in their way?

This is the vital first step; you can't have a character at all, let alone a compelling one, without it. It can be as simple as a few sentences.

Let's use Harry Potter as an example. Harry is a beaten-down, skinny orphan who will become a powerful, confident wizard-- if Voldemort doesn't kill him first.

There are 2 ways characters should connect with a reader:

1. We are like them. We can identify with this character. We get something about them. I think most people can identify with Harry's unfortunate circumstance of being picked on by somebody bigger than him.
2. We want to be like them. They have some quirk, power, or characteristic we admire and would like to have. Harry's a freakin' wizard. If I'd been younger when the books came out, I'd have sneaked down to my room and concocted fake potions and waved around a twig yelling Expelliarmus!

There are 5 things every character should have:

1. Flaws- A flaw is something that is wrong with the character that is THEIR FAULT that prevents them from reaching their goal. Think of Harry Potter: he doesn't tend to plan ahead very well (Goblet of Fire, anyone?).
2. Handicaps- A handicap is something that ISN'T the character's fault that prevents them from reaching their goal. Harry has a connection to Voldemort because of Voldemort's attempt to kill him that actually helps bring a more powerful Voldemort back to life.
3. Strengths- Basically, things the character rocks at. Harry has an amazing knack for defense against the dark arts (quite a necessary skill for him!) and Quidditch.
4. Quirks- This doesn't mean your character has to be a Looney Lovegood. A quirk is a unique way your character sees the world, or something particularly distinctive about them. Harry's scar is a "quirk"-- something unique to him that stands out.
5. Motivation- Your character has to WANT SOMETHING. They have to be driven to achieve their goal. This motivation makes your character get up and do things instead of just sitting around, getting on with life. Harry wants to avenge his parents-- and prevent Voldemort from killing Harry and his friends.

So, my friends, that is the 3-2-5 Rule of Characters. If you want even more awesome advice on creating compelling characters, go check out all the other entries in the Great Blogging Experiment!

41 comments:

Christina Lee said...

This post is made of AWESOME! Especially this: Who are they, who are they becoming, and what stands in their way?

Liz Fichera said...

These are great tips and reminders! Wonderful post. Thanks!

Michelle McLean said...

Ooo LOVE the 3-2-5 rule *writing that down* :D

Meredith said...

You're so right that characters need flaws! I love this advice--thanks so much for sharing it!

Laura Pauling said...

Awesome! I think so far, this has been the most helpful post. But all the posts combined, give a full picture of great characters!

C. N. Nevets said...

"..what stands in their way"

Oh, that's such a great point! It's not just that there's a developmental arc, but that there's some sort of challenge in completing that arc.

Elana Johnson said...

3-2-5 of WIN! I especially loved this part: "Who are they, who are they becoming, and what stands in their way?"

I think if you can answer those questions, then you can create a character that people will want to read about. Great stuff here!

stickynotestories said...

I LOVE the 3-2-5 rule! I'm printing this out and pasting it as wallpaper above my writing desk :)

Thanks for sharing!

Madeleine said...

Great points, excellent and thought provoking. I wonder what people would make of my character Suzanne, someone told me they thought she was dull and that they wouldn't want to meet her LOL! http://scribbleandedit.blogspot.com/2010/09/blog-feast.html

Nicki Elson said...

Thanks for sharing this structure direct from "the awesomest writing class ever." It's a handy formula to help keep it all straight and your explanations are very good.

I'm happy to see the Potter characters getting some play in today's Experiment---even amongst all the adventure, it's the characters that made the series such a hit.

Clarissa Draper said...

The 3-2-5 rule is great! I'll have to remeber that in my next novel.

CD

Shari Green said...

I love this! Definitely jotting down the 3-2-5 rule in my notebook. Thank you! :)

Carolyn Abiad said...

Took notes on this post! Thanks

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent rule! What stands in his way is a great prompt. (And sometimes, he can stand in his own way!)

Colene Murphy said...

Awesome technique! That will come in really handy! Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Great post! I find the "2" rule especially interesting...Are you saying a character has to have those things for the reader too connect with them? That seems a little narcissistic...then again, I guess we all are (to some extent, at least).

The Golden Eagle said...

I love the way this post is set up as 3-2-5! They're all intrinsic to what makes a compelling character--great advice!

M Pax said...

Had a great workshop in character goals, motivation & conflict last night.

Your advise here is very similar.

Bish Denham said...

Oh this is very good Shallee. I like it!

Valerie Ipson said...

Love the simplicity of the 3-2-5!! Thanks! And thanks for stopping by my blog.

Melissa said...

Wow. This 3-2-5 rule is amazing and it pretty much sums up absolutely everything there is on writing a compelling character. Great job!

Also, I adore how you linked everything to Harry Potter - being a crazy fan myself it just made everything you said resonate on a whole new level for me.

And yeah, I read the first book when I was nine. Was devastated when my letter didn't come.

Janet Johnson said...

Great way to remember with 3-2-5. You break it down nicely. Must have been an awesome class! :)

Talei said...

Excellent points!! I love the 3-2-5 rules. I especially like 'who is he?' and 'who is he becoming?' - Nicely said. ;)

Suzanne Jones said...

Great stuff - I'm going to make a note of the 3-2-5 rule for future use.

Cinette said...

Great (and informative) post! I'm jotting this all down!
Thanks for stopping by my blog.-)

michelle said...

I love your post Shallee. I'm going to have to use this when I create my next character!

Margo Berendsen said...

Okay, I'll be bold and say this is the BEST post I've read so far today - about 20 of them so far. Wow! I'm totally bookmarking this and using it to get my characters ready for NaNoWriMom. the way you used the 3 rule on Harry was short and sweet and strong enough to punch!

mshatch said...

great post.

Erica M. Chapman said...

So cool! Harry Potter is a great example. You really make it easy to understand. Fantastic post ;o)

Lynda Young said...

Great list of things that make characters compelling :)

Anna said...

I love the "we like them/we want to be like them" idea. It's so simple yet so true!

Quinn said...

I love the 3-2-5 rule. Great post!

DL Hammons said...

That's some great stuff there! I'm bookmarking this post!! Thank you. :)

N. R. Williams said...

I found you Shallee, love Harry and all his struggles. Several have posted about Harry but your post is unique.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Pam Torres said...

Nice! 3-2-5 I can remember that! Well said and I am happy to follow you!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Oh, the handicap. That's something I hadn't thought of. Thanks for the great post!

Elena Solodow said...

I love the way you outlined this. Great job! P.S. Your blog coloring reminds me of an aquarium. I like it.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Great rule! Thanks for sharing it with us!

Christie Wright Wild said...

Loved this! I tweeted this, too.

Julie Musil said...

This is AWESOME! Tomorrow's blog post is about character work, and I'm adding yours to my list. Thanks!

Nicole and Justin said...

This is so fantastic! Thank you! I am loving reading through all your posts in your index for writers!

 
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