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How to Use the Low Point to Show Off Your Character’s Development

February 10, 2020

When you’re in the thick of writing, you’re pressured to perfectly structure your plots, ace your pacing, and polish your prose. Amid that chaos, character arcs can easily get lost.

 

You want readers to be touched by hope when the hero perseveres, joy when he discards his selfish goals, or determination when he confronts the villain. But despite the effort you’ve poured in, you worry that readers won’t be able to follow the protagonist’s arc. If they don’t notice his pattern of growth, they won’t understand the theme—which means the story won’t outshine thousands of unremarkable novels. 

 

These doubts drain your energy. By the time you come to the climax, you’re tempted to insert on-the-nose dialogue about your character’s change of heart to guarantee readers get the message. Though you’re on the right track, a spoon-fed revelation lacks emotional impact. Instead, you need to display a character’s transformation through a hard-hitting low point.

 

Set Up Victories That Are Impossible without Character Development

The low point (sometimes called the third plot point) occurs before the climax and triggers the shift from the second to the third act (if you’re unfamiliar with these terms, check out the plot guide in our resource library). This tragedy shatters the character’s world and clears a path for the villain to succeed. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès instigates a series of events that ends with a child’s murder. In Fawkes, Thomas’s father buries him under kegs of gunpowder. In Mistborn: The Final Empire, Lord Ruler kills Vin’s mentor, Kelsier. The characters then process the implications before making their next move.

 

If you build up to the moment correctly, the protagonist’s choice exposes how his experiences have seasoned him. Without evidence of maturity, victory will be implausible (and impossible). If he’s still the character readers met in chapter one, he would never reach the climax.

 

The low point convinces Edmond Dantès to revise his philosophy on vengeance. If he’d continued despite the disaster, he would never have felt the freedom of forgiveness. If Thomas hadn’t listened to White Light, the stone plague would have ravaged him. If Vin hadn’t learned to accept pain as part of trust, Lord Ruler would still be on the throne. The low point is a locked door, and the truth the hero discovers is the key.

 

Though moral dilemmas are compelling, you can’t introduce one without first pushing the protagonist to his knees. Readers have watched him fail because of his false beliefs. When he pursues the right course of action, readers realize he’s grown.

 

Destroy Your Hero’s Foundation

The catastrophe should rock your character’s world so terribly that other trials pale in comparison. Many of you are probably thinking that someone needs to die. But first-degree mentor murder isn’t universally effective.

 

Throughout your story, a truth or a lie guides the protagonist. Edmond Dantès justifies ruining lives by believing he’s the bringer of God’s justice. Thomas becomes more and more receptive to White Light’s voice. Vin slowly buys into Kelsier’s idea of trust. The characters’ values hold them steady, permitting Edmond to crush his enemies and bringing hope to Thomas and Vin.

 

But the low point demolishes these mainstays. Edmond releases his vendetta after causing the death of an innocent. Vin questions Kelsier’s teaching when he dies, and Thomas faces betrayal and death for following White Light. Their convictions crumble, and they must decide whether to cling to or abandon them.

 

When the character hangs on, it demonstrates that he won’t waver even if a situation challenges his beliefs. He’s evaluated the truth and staked a position. He won’t go back.

 

Without Words

The low point pulls a heavy load. It leads to the climax, which lets readers judge a character’s resolutions by the victories he achieves. Vin annihilates Lord Ruler because she trusts Kelsier, Thomas and Emma defeat the villain by relying on White Light, and Edmond lives in peace because he forgave. These rewards vindicate their beliefs but would have been impossible to gain without the low point.

 

Readers have seen it all. They cheer as characters stumble through quests, become filled with hope when characters near the truth, and wish away characters’ sorrows. The characters become their friends, enemies, and mirrors, all within two covers and a cracked binding.

 

The end of the journey deserves as much emotion as the hundreds of pages before it. The best way to immerse readers in a character’s final struggle is to portray his triumph through his choices and actions. If you showcase this, readers will grasp the story’s meaning with more than their minds.

8 Comments

  1. Zachary Holbrook

    “First-degree mentor murder isn’t universally effective” –> Ha! Yes, especially when so many have done it that it’s become cliched.

    I never really thought about the connection between the murder-suicide and Edmond’s choices at the end novel. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Thanks for reading, Zachary! The nerd in me loves finding connections like that in fiction, and it’s a double bonus when I get to slip my discoveries into articles. I’m glad it gave you a new perspective on Edmund’s arc.

  2. Eliza LeBlanc

    Great article, Gabby! Character arcs are one of my favorite things and I can’t believe how often they’re messed up (or are simply nonexistent *facepalm*).

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Thanks so much! Character arcs are one of my favorite things, too :D. (*morns for all the poor characters who have no arcs*).

  3. Kassie

    This couldn’t have been more perfectly timed…I’m literally in the middle of writing my low point. Seeing how it will tie into victory is definitely my hardest thing right now, since everything’s broken loose at this point. So, thanks for this.

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      That’s a nice coincidence! Third plot points can be incredibly hard when you’re right in the middle of them. Good luck!

  4. Coralie

    I love your last line. That’s the kind of suckerpunch you want to end on. This is an inspiring article! I didn’t relate to the examples you gave as thoroughly since I haven’t read the stories you used, but I still got the point and sort of followed along with my own characters and found myself asking how I could apply what you’ve said. Thank you for sharing. *really needs to go read Fawkes*

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Thanks so much! I’m glad you followed along even though my examples were unfamiliar. I’m so happy you’re thinking about how to apply this to your own story! That’s the highest compliment a reader could give an article writer. 🙂

      And yes! Totally go read Fawkes! 😀

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