Okay, so I chose to tell you about my quirks not just because of characterization, but because there happen to be three of them and they happen to go nicely explaining the rule of three in stories (a coincidence, but I’ll get to that shortly). When we read about a character, I don’t imagine it would be much fun if a problem presented itself and the character solved it on the first try. While that happens often in real life (otherwise we would be completely exhausted from having to make three efforts to solve every single issue we face) one of the reasons we read stories is to be able to see what happens when things don’t go the way you think they should and the character still doesn’t give up.
This is where the rule of three comes into play. In stories, the rule of three simply cements what a lot of people think about oddities or events in their own lives. If something happens once, it was a fluke. Twice, it was a coincidence. Three times? Well now, that must mean something. When you combine this within a story that has strong characterization, you get a page turner that is authentic.
Now, how to incorporate characterization without it feeling like a setup for your three obstacles? Consider this. How boring would it be if I were a character in a book and the writer told you about my three quirks in an effort to help you get to know me as more of a real person, and then used only those three quirks as steps in the obstacles I was about to face? PREDICTABLE! That’s when your character goes from a well rounded person, to a set up. Sometimes it’s hard to see it in our own writing, but avid readers can spot it in a heartbeat.
I just finished reading the wonderful novel Rain, Reign, by Ann M. Martin, where the rule of three and characterization are perfectly combined. In this book, the main character, Rose, has three favorite things: words (homonyms), rules, and prime numbers. Throughout the story, Rose has difficulty connecting to other students because of her extreme affinity for these three things, but there is so much more to her as a person. Because of these other aspects of her life and personality – the relationship with her aide that helps her stay focused in school and find good conversation starters, her love for her dog, Rain, her amazing problem solving and organizational skills, and the comfort she feels in routines and structure – you don’t even see the plot twist coming when one of her favorite things creates a heart wrenching decision that only Rose can make. It is completely authentic and a must read!
Warning – here is a personal example hidden in my ramblings…
When I told you about my three quirks, I mentioned a couple of hints that there was more to the story. One of the hints was the word “consciously” when I talked about walking over a manhole. I stick by that. But sometimes things happen when you aren’t looking out for them. Sometimes, you find yourself walking down a back street in Mexico where the road opens up and you suddenly realize that there is the most amazing waterfall right in front of you. You can’t believe you found this incredible sight, and though you feel a quick sting of pain in your legs as you turn to make sure your friend is as awestruck as you are, you find yourself pausing to ponder why her knees are where her face should be, and it still takes you a moment to process that while you were completely distracted, you walked over a manhole…and fell in! Seriously, I am not making this up. The one time. Fluke, or common sense proven true, I know not. But what I do know is that Mexican manholes are smaller than my hips and thus I am alive to tell the tale.
The tow truck was another matter entirely. I actually chose to do that. A few years after the manhole incident, I would still often laugh at that story with my friends, and it made me consider the possibility that my fears could possibly be odd. (Feel free to judge me – someday when you’re famous and your autobiography comes out, I’ll be happy to return the favor:)) So one day, I find myself driving on a three lane road, alone, except for the tow truck in front of me. At a light, he had turned onto my street and into my lane, and when my light turned green, I decided to stay where I was. I decided it was time to conquer this ridiculous fear and I wasn’t going to change lanes for a silly reason. Not two minutes later, I noticed that the SUV on the back of the tow truck was wobbling more and more. I couldn’t be certain, but it also looked like it was getting closer to the back edge of the flatbed. I convinced myself that it was paranoia, but decided to give just a bit more distance between my car and his truck. This was lucky, because as I increased my distance, a chain snapped and the SUV slid right off the bed in front of me! Sheesh! My caution and the gain in distance saved from an accident, but it was a crazy feeling. And I had to ask myself – Is this just a coincidence?
Well, I sure hope so, because if I ever open up my dishwasher and find a solitary piece of silverware crying from loneliness, I will know that my fears coming true is not a fluke and not a coincidence. It was the certainty of the rule of three. Just as certainly as if I had told you more than just these things about myself (like I have dived into sharkish waters to repair a boat before we drifted out into the ocean, been chased by an angry herd of goats, slid down a mountain only to be saved by getting stuck in the one cactus plant, been knocked out of a canoe going at high speed by a tree, etc.) I would have the making of a well rounded character…and just maybe, a story.
So the next time you are creating a character or devising a plot, make sure to show the reader that there is a lot more to the story than just the nuts and bolts. There are well rounded people with quirks, habits, fears, and secrets that can most certainly get in the way of what they are searching for.
Some books with great characterization:
Rain, Reign By: Ann M. Martin
The Mysterious Benedict Society By: Trenton Lee Stewart
Theodosia (a series) By : R.L. LaFevers
Tanya and the Magic Wardrobe By: Patricia Lee Gauch
The Missing Series By: Margaret Peterson Haddix