On Story: Plots of Character

A series considering the various journeys protagonists can undertake within narratives. This essay looks at Plots of Character.

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Follows: Plots of Fortune

In my last essay I wrote about the different types of plots as categorised by Norman Freidman. We looked at the different types of Plots of Fortune, as he defined them. These are plots that follow an individual’s circumstances, whether they rise or fall, whether they recover or not.

This essay will be looking at Plots of Character. These are quite simple—they are plots in which a protagonist’s character is tested.

The Maturing Plot

This plot is often equated to ‘coming-of-age,’ with the recent Spiderman: Homecoming being a great example of a young hero finding his place in the world and maturing to fill it—in which life lessons are taught through hardship and disappointment, trial and error.

Young Adult novels often follow this plot, but it can also be found in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. This plot can be found in the Harry Potter series; however I would argue that these also feature the Sentimental Plot, with Harry initially living under the stairs, (though he does become very rich and famous with the turn of a page).

Coming-of-age and maturing into the next stage of our lives is a fairly universal theme, which is possibly why this is so powerful when used right, as well as such a popular plot.

The Reform Plot

This plot can—on surface level—be quite similar to the Maturity Plot. The Reform Plot follows someone who starts off strong but is ultimately felled by their own flaws. My example of this is Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose own ignorance leads to his downfall—the inciting incident being his kidnapping at the start of the film. While forced to create weapons in his kidnapper’s camp, Tony Stark realises he has been gallivanting to the point where he has lost substantial control of his company. The weapons he has profited from have ended up in ‘the wrong hands’ and he decides the safest are his own. Therefore, his character is reformed.

Similarly, The Reform Plot can also be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This kind of story offers us hope by acknowledging that we as humans fail, but that we are also capable of change and redemption.

The Testing Plot

The Testing Plot has a main character who, while strong and noble, is repeatedly pushed towards compromising their ideals. These choices may be due to persuasion or coercion, poverty and famine, or even war, but it may be, like Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that they realise the world is not quite what it seemed.

People would expect a character to compromise, as it would seem easier to, but that would be the ‘wrong thing’ for them to do. By having a character sticking to their ideals, they ultimately end up losing something significant as a consequence. For some people Steve Rogers has no dip in his morality, never taking the easy route, however in Captain America: Civil War, he does when it comes to protecting his friends, Bucky Barnes and Tony Stark, from the truth regarding the former in the latter’s parents’ deaths. He chose the easy way out to try to protect both of them and avoid an uncomfortable discussion, however when he stuck to his morality, Steve lost a friend in Stark and Captain America ‘died’ symbolically.

Other examples include For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. This type of plot is also popular within shōnen manga—often with the protagonist refusing to compromise.

While difficult to pull off well (especially with an audience that is not used to it), the Reform Plot can be quite universal. Most people will face difficult challenges and decisions that will define their character. Humans are quite like lightning (and maths, actually), with the path of least resistance being the preferred route, but the Testing Plot can act as a kind of reminder that easy isn’t necessarily best and that while the harder route is more challenging, it has its purpose and rewards.

This arc may not be very noticeable, as touched on earlier, and so audiences may not be used to it; in fact, it may not seem like much of an arc at all. It is important to have a character receive backlash for their decisions or they may come across as inactive in their own story. It may be uncomfortable for them and they may ‘fail’ their testing plot by deciding to concede where they shouldn’t, but we, as an audience, need to see the sacrifices in full to see the significance in the development of their character.

The Degenerative Plot

This plot sees the main character start off attractive and sympathetic, but they devolve into something almost entirely unrecognisable, whether this be seen through their immorality, despair or an unattractive position.

Stories that follow the villain as their protagonist often follow this kind of plot, such as that seen in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello. That being said, it can also be nicely used in stories where morality is blurred. Death Wish includes this kind of plot, with a family man brought to drastic measures to enact revenge. The trigger is often some form of crisis, but while most people pick up their lives and move on, these protagonists do not.

This example can be found in much of Chekhov’s work, as well as Andre Gide’s The Immoralist, demonstrating how close anyone could be to becoming someone’s villain.


Many of these plots overlap and work along each other nicely. For example, the beginning of a series could use a Plot of Fortune but evolve into a Plot of Character. It could seem like one kind of plot at the beginning but be subverted into something new entirely (if done well). The main connecting thread between all these plots, however, is that the central character has their character itself changed by the story.


Next: Plots of Thought

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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