The Rule of Threes: Expressive Character Design

WritersdontcryNEmoticowsothing 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.

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