Writing — Using Plot Points for Character Development

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Today, we’re going to talk about developing characters.  I decided on this for the most important reason of all — you wonderful readers put character development as the Number One area you wanted more information on.  Isn’t that cool?  You ask, you receive.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume you already have a character sketched out and the question is How do I develop this character within a story?

To begin with, if you’ve been reading here regularly, you’ll have learned that every scene should accomplish one or both of these things: advance the plot, advance a character.  There are other things you can do in addition to these two, but these are essential.  Even if you’re writing a flashback, you better give us information regarding one of these or else it’s wasted words.  Advancing a character really means developing a character and that means writing words that make the character seem like a real thing, a complex thing, and not just a convenient plot point or a stand-in for “THE MESSAGE” of your book.  Since developing a character is considered one of the essential elements of a scene and advancing the plot is the other, it seems natural that they should relate to each other.  And, what do you know, they do.

When you develop a plot, you take the impetus of the idea and flesh it out into a full-blown story.  You craft each moment so that it flows from one to the next in a logical and, hopefully, satisfying manner.  When developing a character, you take the basic idea of a character, the sketch, and flesh it out into a full-blown person (or animal or supernatural creature or undead being or mythic god — you get the idea).  You then craft each moment of this character’s existence so that it flows from one to the next in a believable and, hopefully, satisfying manner.  If done well, plot point and character development will have a lot of overlap.

Let’s get to an example to clear this all up with a little story called —

The Beanstalk of Death

Character Sketch — Jack is a young man living with his mother in a small hovel.  They are struggling and things are not going well.  He’s good-looking, strong, willful, and thinks he knows best.  He loves his mother and wants to make life better.  Jack likes taking risks and is self-centered.

Basic Plot Points

  1. Mother tasks Jack to sell their good cow.
  2. Jack trades the cow for magic beans.
  3. Magic Beans create giant beanstalk into the clouds.
  4. Jack climbs beanstalk and encounters Giant’s castle.
  5. Jack attempts to steal gold and magic creatures from Giant.
  6. Jack is captured.
  7. With the help of magic creatures, Jack escapes.
  8. Giant chases Jack but Jack reaches bottom of beanstalk and cuts it down.
  9. Giant dies. Jack has Gold-Egg-Laying Goose.  He and Mother are happy.

Okay, this is a very loose outline that gives us many of the highlight points we want to hit when writing our story.  One way to develop a character is to have them change over time as s/he reacts to the experiences in the story.  In other words, just as a plot must have a beginning, several key points in the middle, and an ending, so must a well-developed character.

In the example above, some scenes offer a natural reason for character development.  Notice that in plot point 2, Jack’s character gets developed if we, as the author, ask a simple question — Why does Jack trade the beans instead of listening to his mother’s orders?  The answer (conveniently found in our character sketch) is that Jack thinks he knows best.  By adding that aspect of his character into the scene, we get a richer scene, a more intriguing plot point (now the reader wonders what’ll happen when this hubris clashes with mother’s wishes), and we see a deeper character in Jack (for although he loves his mother, he’s willing to defy her).  Asking “Why” a character does an action is a sure-fire way to find places for character development.

Let’s apply this to our collection of Plot Points —

Basic Plot Points

  1. Mother tasks Jack to sell their good cow which he does out of love for mother and desire to see his small family better off.
  2. Thinking he knows better, Jack trades the cow for magic beans.
  3. Magic Beans create giant beanstalk into the clouds.  Jack grows more confident since his decision is paying off.(Here, rather than asking Why, I asked “How does Jack feel about the Plot Point?”)
  4. Though Mother objects, Jack ignores her and takes the risk of climbing beanstalk and encountering Giant’s castle.
  5. At the height of his hubris, Jack attempts to steal gold and magic creatures from the Giant.
  6. Jack is captured, and for the first time considers that maybe his Mother wasn’t all wrong about her caution.  What good will he be to her if he’s dead? (Here we move away from the character sketch to show some change/growth in Jack)
  7. Though he’s acted independently until now, he finally sees that his actions touch others and that he needs others sometimes. So, with the help of magic creatures, Jack escapes.
  8. Giant chases Jack but Jack reaches bottom of beanstalk and cuts it down, willing to destroy the thing he created for his own safety as well as the safety of others.
  9. Giant dies. Jack has Gold-Egg-Laying Goose.  He and Mother are happy.  Both Jack and Mother realize that a little bit of caution and a little bit of confidence go a long way.

Now we’ve got a more developed Jack for our story.  As we write, we’ll find more opportunities to develop him further that we never would have seen without putting him in the context of the plot points.

Of course, this is just one of a gazillion methods to develop a character and all authors use many more than one method at any given time.  I find, however, that if I’m having trouble locating the best places to develop a specific character, it can help to think of it in terms of the plot points.

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20 comments to Writing — Using Plot Points for Character Development

  • Great point, Stuart. I think you are absolutely right about the intersection of character development and plot. Something we migth add to the dynamic is conflict. We often say that in books as well as in life, crises, difficulties, combat or other kinds of adversity, often reveal character. We find out who we are when the chips are down. I’d push this further and say that conflict CREATES character, at least in books (and, I suspect, often in life too). So if we don’t begin the story knowing that Jack thinks he knows best and acts impulsively, we can disvcover that about him as he responds to the stimuli of his story, then adjust retrospectively. As we build a sense of the character, we can feel his conflict as things go awry and see which way those events might push him, thereby developing the character further. Does that make sense?

  • AJ — Absolutely makes sense, and absolutely correct. No character is ever fully fleshed out at the start. As we create the work, we discover more and more about our characters in the way they react to the situations we present. I will, however, qualify your statement and say that conflict CAN create character, but I don’t think its the only way. Off the top of my head, if a character shows sympathy for another who is hurt, there may be no conflict between them, no obstacle to overcome, just a display of caring and love which creates aspects of the character without conflict. Of course, conflict is the main drive behind any story and should be behind most every scene, so naturally, conflict does create character (just not the only way).

  • Stuart, I love it when people take existing stories and make me look at them in new ways. I never looked at Jack in light of character development and this was brilliant. I especially like what you did here:

    >>.(Here, rather than asking Why, I asked “How does Jack feel about the Plot Point?”)

    A character’s feelings about the conflict he is facing or that he has created give the conflict teeth and power and make the reader care. I never cared for Jack, but you have made me look at him in new ways. For the first time *ever* I care about Jack. Amazing!

    Lovely post!

  • Okay, first of all “The Beanstalk of Death” is a MUCH better title than “Jack and the Beanstalk.” What kid doesn’t want to read about a beanstalk of death…?

    I love this idea, Stuart. I’ve never plotted for character in this way before, but I think it’s an incredibly useful exercise for beginning writers and professionals alike. I’m going to have to try this with the WIP.

  • This is a difficult concept to convey, and you nailed it clearly and simply. Too many stories treat plot and character as separate entities and consequently fall flat. This was a great way to show how they are/should be entangled.

  • Absolutely, Stuart. I didn’t mean to suggest conflict was the only way to create/reveal character. Thanks.

  • Faith — Thanks. Since this is obviously just one method towards character development, I look forward to reading a post from you (hint, hint) on the topic! :)

    David — All of those stories could do with a title uplift. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? C’mon. It’s really The Witch’s Apple. Rapunzel? Nope. That one’s Hair-Freak! (with the exclamation point as part of the title).

    Wolf — Glad you found the post useful.

  • Conflict comes in a lot of flavors; it doesn’t have to be the loud, shoot-em up, blow-em up variety. It doesn’t even have to be shouting or hurt feelings. Something as simple as Sam wants to go out for dinner and Martha wants to stay home and cook, in the right hands, can have enough conflct to drive a story for pages and pages with nary a harsh word nor a handgrenade in sight.

  • Fantastic exercise…I’m going to try it out on a short story I’m working on right now. Thanks!

    Although, I have to say, at first I was hoping you not only retitled the story, but were going to re-imagine it. I was looking forward to the beanstalk coming to life at the Giant’s command to capture and eat Jack (or something). Then it would really be a beanstalk of death! :-)

  • Mikaela

    Hm… I haven’t used an outline that way before. Will have to try it on the Steampunk idea that’s nagging my brain. sigh. I also need to figure out a way to get from A to Z during revisions without too many breaks..

  • Beanstalk of Death – A Tragic Tale
    Or, History is Written by the Victor

    Blunderbore is a giant who had enough of being hunted by heroes and built a castle in the clouds to live in peace. He’s sort of slow, but generally good natured, unless he feels threatened by the humans that he moved away from. His wife is well meaning, but easy to confuse.

    1. Blunderbore tends his small farm nearby his “castle.” The castle is just a giant sized home built from stone. Anyone could make the mistake that it was a castle if they saw it.

    2. A beanstalk grows out of the clouds. The beans taste good with beef, so he leaves it.
    3. His wife is duped by a stranger from below and as a result, he loses his money for the nearby mountain folk, his beloved pet, and his beautiful singing harp.

    4. He chases the thief in a fit of anger, only wanting his stuff returned to him.

    5. The beanstalk falls over when the thief cuts it down and the poor giant falls to his death.

    6. The wife, distraught over the death of her husband, moves in with the mountainfolk and plots her revenge on the thief.

    7. The mountain folk march to war against the now wealthy king, who made his fortune on the misery of the giant.

    8. Jack’s army fights the army of the mountain folk (Dwarves) and both sides lose many.

    9. Jack faces off against the giant wife and he kills her, though with her remaining strength she crushes him under a rock.

    10. Jack’s army finally pushes the mountain folk to flee.

    11. Jack’s son takes over the kingdom with an advisor that his father had used, the same man that sold Jack the beans.

    12. The son orders the scribes to write the heroic tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.

    Heh! Sorry, couldn’t resist. 😉

  • Edmund — Yes. And there is your post for a coming week! :) You all are making this too easy.

    Megan — Awesome. Let us know how it works out for you. As for The Beanstalk of Death, well, I had considered a rewrite, but decided that for the purposes of the post, it served better to keep things focused. Luckily, Daniel went ahead and did the work for us all to enjoy!

    Mikaela — When you say “too many breaks” do you mean a lack of motivation to get through revisions or were you referring to breaks in the actual MS? One is easier to deal with than the other — though which one depends on who you are.

    Daniel — Great stuff! If properly fleshed out, I think you might have a trilogy here.

  • Tom G

    Daniel, genius! You should consider writing.

  • Young_Writer

    Daniel, I’m so going to look out for that in Borders or Barns & Nobles. Great stuff!
    I try and spend a lot of time bringing my characters to life, but I haven’t based any characters off of any peopel yet. Is that a good idea or a bad one? And sorry, one more question. I got made fun of today a LOT for writing. Not for writing genre fiction- most kids don’t even know what that means, not so bright at my school- but just writing in general. I brushed it off the first few times but then it got harder after my best friend teased me. Not the good kind. Any tips for handling this? Thank you!

  • Mikaela

    Stuart, it is the motivation that I have trouble with. I have no idea how to solve it..

  • YW — Basing your characters on real people is a whole post (or more) but my short answer is that such things are neither good nor bad. Although if you are too obvious in basing a character on one specific person, you may face libel issues. Ultimately, I think all our characters are based on pieces of people we’ve known and on ourselves. How else would you know how people behave? As for being teased, well, excuse my language but f— ’em. I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s really stupid and disgusting the way people in this country (and this world) are put down for using their brains. And frankly, it’s been proven time and again that if you start early in life practicing at something, the chances for success increase exponentially. From musicians to tennis players to writers to anything, the earlier you start taking it seriously, the better off you’ll be. And, considering that recently J.K. Rowling made more money than the Queen, I think there are reasons even the thickest person can relate to for pursuing writing (even if they can’t understand artistic merit).

    Mikaela — I’m sure we’ve written about this before, but we’ll be sure to address it again. However, it always comes down to three letters. BIC (Butt In Chair). Hang in there!

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you so much, that really helped! Now, I’m off to my brothers game. I report for his football team for the local paper.

  • I’ve been contemplating a mechanism like this for tracking my characters’s growth and progression through a novel by keeping a note of what each character is thinking or feeling in a given scene of the story and how they grow/progress. Thanks for the example!

  • YW — Happy to be of service! :)

    Stephen — This can certainly help out, so good luck. Another thing to try is using the plot point to build a flowchart of the character’s development (if you happen to like flowcharts).