If you recall, our lesson on writing immersive description (mini-lesson no.8) used a ‘rule of 5’. The creation a compelling character employs a different ‘rule of 5’.
Look at the passage below and identify what five general things (motifs) are described in order to create a compelling character.
‘Never stops.’ The tramp stood waiting at the zebra crossing. None of the cars slowed. He was dressed in newspaper, with string tied in a bow. On his head was a shapeless hat with holes in it – it didn’t do much to hold off rain or keep out the cold – he wore it for sentimental reasons. He counted the vehicles going past. He was always counting. He was good at counting. It calmed him. It lifted the frown from his face. ‘Never stops.’ He took a deep breath and stepped out into the road…
- Something the character wears that is representative of his social position (newspaper)
- Something he habitually says (‘Never stops.’)
- Something he habitually does (counts)
- Something that is representative of his psychological state (the hat with a hole in)
- Something distinctive about his face/body (the frown)
When writing, it is always tempting to create noble kings, beautiful princesses, prince charmings, noble knights, evil witches and so on. But can readers really identify with such characters? Can we really care about what happens to them and do we really want to keep reading? If these characters are too perfect (perfectly good or perfectly evil), how can their characters actually develop?
If a character is to develop, they need a flaw or dilemma. At heart, then, they must have a ‘real’ issue or concern. In seeking to resolve that flaw or dilemma, they either transform for the better or worse. Whether they are Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader, we can see ourselves in their place and care about them.
In order to describe a character effectively, many writers use the ‘rule of 5’ above. The writer should simply describe any five things that are unique to that character: something they always say, something they always do, something they always wear, something distinctive about their face, something distinctive about their body, and an x-factor element (such as something they feel or believe, or something representative of their psychological state).
Why stop at just five motifs? Well, it is definitely possible to over-describe a character. If you spend three pages describing a character, firstly it’s boring for the reader, and then you’re probably engaging in exposition and back-story (remember, it’s always better to show than tell), possibly making it hard for the reader to ‘identify with’ the character, to care or to want to keep reading. Therefore, keep your characterization fairly brief and loose, so that the character all but becomes a ‘cypher’ for the reader: the reader interprets the character as themselves.
If it takes the reader more than 30 seconds to read your piece of characterization, then the characterization is too long. People make up their minds in the first 30 seconds of meeting someone, you see. First impressions count. If you go on for more than 30 seconds, your description of character will begin to fight against what the reader has already imagined. And writers shouldn’t want to fight with their readers. The readers can just walk away.
Try to write a one-paragraph character description of a mercenary or a market-place conjuror.
If you’d like me to look at how successful your attempt is, please do feel free to email me (Adam): adz_d2003 @ yahoo.co.uk – deleting the two spaces either side of the @ sign.
I’ll be posting a new lesson every day (Monday-Friday), to help people who are stuck at home because of the coronavirus situation. These mini-lessons will give you a useful daily routine, and might just keep you sane! Stay safe.
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