The Rule of Threes: Expressive Character Design
Nothing rocks my boat quite like an exquisitely inked character description: just enough to accent their best attributes, but not so much that you can’t see the person for the paint. And nothing impresses me more. Such restraint and precision! Such a vivid vision--brief enough that it hits you like a truck, and nuanced enough that it hints at the secrets left untold. A good character description can, in a handful of words, sketch a persona that feels active, alive, and expressive. It can make you feel as though the character could step off the page.
But of course, like with chocolate, sea slugs, and everything else we love, moderation is key. A description too detailed or too bald can make an otherwise interesting character feel monotonous and rigid. The aim of a good description is not to bore into every pore on your hero’s skin, nor to leave your hero an empty vessel for your reader to project their interests upon, but to capture their life and their essence with the minimum number of brush strokes.
In editing, I’ve found that tight, evocative prose often embraces the rule of threes. Three adjectives, three sentences, three paragraphs, three of just about everything. And for good reason! Three gives breadth without dragging and brevity without boring. It’s the invisible number, in that anything over or under three makes a statement. (Not that statement-making is bad! But you definitely want to know that you’re doing it.) And three has a wonderful resonance. So, without further ado, here are a few ways to use—and break!--the Rule of Threes in your own writing.
The Rule of Threes
There’s a reason we call a man “tall, dark, and handsome” rather than simply “tall” or “tall and dark.” Three adjectives sound poetic, flow easily, and are the norm in prose across genres, making the craft behind the art relatively invisible and allowing the reader to simply experience the story. (Of course, once they’re pointed out, like the cigarette marks in Fight Club, they can become impossible to ignore.) Likewise, three lines of description are just enough to give a clear picture of a character’s physical, mental, and emotional presence without burying us in detail or leaving us puzzling out a post-modern picture. It’s a perfect rule of thumb to check your work against when you’re writing a description. And, if you choose to use more or less, it serves as a good reminder to check and make sure you like the effect.
One of my favorite things about the rule of threes as it applies to description is that it leaves a lot of room to play with that last adjective or sentence. We almost always expect the last word to be in line with the first two, a kind of exclamation point on the idea. But because of that, choosing something in stark contrast to the first two descriptors is often far more effective, providing for a memorable hook that leaves us wanting more. For example, “tall, dark, and every inch of him crisscrossed in sharp white scars.” You can even use the expectations to set up humor or tension. “Tall, dark, and every inch of him crisscrossed in sharp white scars . . . Oh, and handsome. Very handsome, in fact. Her eyes traced the scars across his chest, wondering how he’d gotten them, as they wound across his rib cage down to his… She jerked her eyes up, blushing furiously—and found he was watching her--watching him. Smirking. She forced herself to hold his gaze. His grin got wider.”
One Is the Loneliest Adjective
Minimalism is perfect for when you want to hit one note very hard. It works best when it stands in stark contrast the background, and, when used properly, can give a character an almost Western feel. It’s a bold, stark move: saying this character embodies this attribute. And it is usually best used when the character themselves is stuck in some fashion. For example, you could use one adjective to define a character because that is what he has been reduced to. And then, as the narrative goes on and his story is told, you could have him regain adjectives the same way he gains complexity and depth.
That being said, it’s easy to go overboard with minimalism. A woman described only as beautiful has the identity of “beautiful.”Which is a pretty lame identity, if you ask me. And, while it does give me a fair amount of leeway as to how I picture her, I’m not actually a fan of the ad-libs approach to description. That’s giving me way too much work! Work I must do at the speed of my reading, which means that woman will look like whatever boring default I’ve assigned to the word “beauty”—even if there’s another woman in the book who already meets that exact same description. (And boy do conversations between those twins get confusing!) I would much rather authors inspire me with their vision, giving me a window into another world, rather than limiting me to the most boring pieces of my own imagination. Rest assured, once intrigued I will fill in whatever details necessary to suit my own desires.
Four is a Party
It is easy to get carried away when writing a description. The perfectionist in us comes raging out, and we want to Micromanage the Hell out of the reader’s experience. They must see our character exactly as we imagine them in all their obsessively detailed glory! And—as every writer worth their salt knows--there is no better place for sounding writerly than in description. Meaning we feel an almost unstoppable urge to cram every tool and trick we’ve ever learned into each and every description we write. By force if necessary. But a little restraint goes a long way.
Heavy description is perfect to underline a character’s fascination with something—or someone. By spending words on it rather than just informing us, you achieve a much more natural effect, allowing the reader to experience the fascination of the character. Of course, that being said, cramming a lot of description onto one hero is still a heavy load to bear—but, like all heavy things, it’s easier if you break it up. Say by putting some description before the character’s name, and some after. In addition, to keep things interesting, I highly recommend varying the sentence length, and keeping the focus on the character’s emotions rather than the mere physical reality of whatever is fascinating them.
Bonus Activity: Check my threes throughout this article—and the places I deviate. Can you see how it affects the flow?