Writing Compelling Characters: The 3-2-5 Rule

Feb 21, 2012

I'm battling a cold today, so I thought I'd repost one of my favorite posts from a few years ago. Characterization is something I'm constantly striving to improve, and this post goes into a process that helps me a great deal when I create characters. Hope you enjoy it, and I'll see you around when I'm feeling better!

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 since practically everyone knows it. 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, what are your tips and tricks for creating characters? Who is your favorite character you've ever written? What about your favorite character in a book someone else wrote?


Kittie Howard said...

Hope you're feeling better soonest, Shallee. There's so much stuff going around this winter. Take care of yourself. Hugs.

And thanks for this re-post at just the right time in my WIP. (But wish you weren't sick to do so.)

Laura Josephsen said...

Feel better soon!!

I love this--I completely agree. I did a blog series on developing characters last year; I follow a lot of these same steps. The process of developing characters is so much fun. Frustrating at times, but fun. And then when the characters run off and stop listening to me and do whatever they want to do, I know I'm getting there. ;)

Heather Day Gilbert said...

This is so stinking helpful! Love it and I'm going to figure how to tweet or retweet it! I need to print this thing out!

Nicole Zoltack said...

I hope you're feeling better!

Great post on characters. It's so important to make them compelling and real.

shelly said...

Get better and this is a great re-post.

DL Hammons said...

Have I been following you that long? I remember reading this the first time you posted it! :)

Still good stuff.

Mary Mary said...

This is good! (Plus, I hope you're feeling better soon.) What surprises me is that so many women seem to connect with Jane Austen's female protagonists. In some ways I can see why, but to me, the time period is a little constrained to connect properly with women in their situations.

i'm erin. said...

Ok, best post ever for me today! I have been writing all day and I'm seriously struggling with my characters. Thanks for sharing this. I hope you're feeling better.

Laura said...

These are good ones to think about. :) However, I don't think we have to be like or want to be like the characters in order to relate to them. Some of the most compelling characters I've ever read are despicable, weak, or unadmirable in some other way.

Meredith said...

I need to print this out and refer to it as I write my new WiP--this is such amazing advice! Thanks for sharing it. Hope you feel better soon!

Anonymous said...

These are great tips and reminders. I struggled with one of my characters in my newest draft. I sat down and wrote in her voice in a notebook to get a better grasp at who she is and what she wants. That cured any qualms I had about her, and I tweaked things to make her more interesting.

Misha Gerrick said...

Excellent post!

I tend to think of my characters as complete and complex beings that I have to get to know. Somehow, that just makes them complete and complex. :-)

Reece said...

Absolutely friggin' love this! Succinct yet enlightening! I emailed it to myself...you know, for future reference.

Sarah Allen said...

Fabulous post! It's always helpful when things are broken down like this, so much easier to think about it that way. And I totally agree, characters need to have flaws to be relatable.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Peggy Eddleman said...

I went to Brandon's class, too! Oh my gosh. I learned SO MUCH from him! Were we there at the same time? I went in 2009 and 2010.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Aw, I hope you are feeling better soon! I'll shine some Aussie summer sun your way :)

Jessie Humphries said...

I can always count on you Shallee to remind me to do something better with my writing. You rock! Nice to be back...missed ya!

Adrienne said...

I love how you've distilled this down so that building a character seems easy and not quite so daunting and monumental as it sometimes seems. I'm writing this down and using it. Thanks! Have some chicken soup and feel better!

Ruth Josse said...

That is feaking awesome! Love it and going to use it. Hope you're feeling better!

Btw, I tagged you over at my place. :)

Rachel Frost said...

Thanks so much for sharing this again. I like to think that I'm pretty good at making characters, or rather, they seem to make themselves--but getting them onto paper is tough. :)

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