Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Using Character Traits to Plot Your Book

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Characters are like people. Each of us has "good" traits --courage and resilience and intelligence, for instance. But we also have traits that get us into trouble--foolhardiness, stubbornness, and being "too smart for our own good" come to mind. Same with our characters. We create strong traits, on both sides of the spectrum, and watch as our characters stumble through the story.

But they don't need to stumble! We can harness those traits and direct them into strong, cohesive plots. Actually, nailing them is like trying to scratch that hard-to-reach place on your back. Once you know how to use character traits to plot your book, it's easy-peasy.

Ultimately, virtues and vices are part of the arc a protagonist, and possibly antagonists, go through. Picking a virtue or vice and allowing the character to GROW through that vice, can raise a book from "okay" to "wonderful," simply by the character's new understanding of life. Dorothy had to learn that "there's no place like home" before she could go back there. Scarlett had to learn basically the same thing – that, without Tara, her life meant nothing. 

But what are their virtues/vices and how do they create the arc? 

NOTE: Virtues and vices can be negative or positive, both at the same time. For instance, kindness is not a virtue when it allows our character to be used as a door mat. And stubbornness is a good thing when our character continues to fight for what they want. So, don't get too hung up in positive/negative. Allow your character to be "bad" sometimes! 

Dorothy's main "vice" is that she's not happy where she is. She even tells us in the iconic song that all she has to do is go "over the rainbow" and she'll find that happy place. So, she receives a series of lessons to prove to her that the place really doesn't matter, happiness is being okay with where you are. The arc is the journey to a new understanding. 

Scarlett thinks a man is all she needs. Her stubbornness keeps her moving forward in a war zone, with babies being born, her family starving, and having to "sell herself" to get enough money to pay taxes on Tara. But her new understanding is that she'll survive on her own. 

So, let's play with plot. Joan, our pretend protagonist, has an issue with trusting her own judgment. We'll make her a detective who needs help in solving a crime. Her shady partner isn't dependable and, as the story goes on, she worries that he may betray her. And, of course, at some point, he does, at least in her mind. 

It all works against her, or so it seems. He, and others around her, seems to be plotting against her, with each betrayal more intense and personal. The plot takes her through triumphs and abysmal failures. But finally, she learns enough to understand she MUST trust herself. Once she does, everything else falls into line and she gets the bad guy. 

This is a very simplistic example of a complicated process, but it is also the core of a story. Everything in the story revolves around the protagonist's character trait – trusting herself. She has to learn that she is trustworthy and that she's a good cop. 

Start with a virtue or vice, allow it to evolve into the arc, and teach your character how to trust, or find the way home, or stand on their own. You'll be amazed at how it makes your story come alive!

What character traits can you use to build a strong story core?


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Really helpful. Made me think of my character, which at this point is just a mere shell.

    1. Good! Because you'll get to build that character, one trait at a time.


  2. Very sound advice. Looking forward to implementing this in my current work.

  3. Hope it helps! Digging into those characters is such a great exercise, for both them and you.


  4. SSH - what a great post! Your posts and teaching inspire me. This is an example of laying out before me things I already knew (mostly) and weaving them into a theme that helped me see them as never before. I have 3 WIPs that I work on a little - back and forth - at the time. 3 separate plots but each story includes the same 3 characters in 3 different settings (1 city, 1 rural mountains, 1 river). I intend for 2 of these characters to end up together in the final story in the series, but I've struggled with which story will end the series and have that happen. You post has given me the idea to pull all three characters onto ONE sheet and detail their strengths, weaknesses, & arcs for a visual comparison. Intuitively, I believe the answer will become more obvious to me as I begin to flesh out these details. Thank you, once again.
    Jay Wright; South Carolina

  5. Jay, you made my day!

    Yes, pulling that information out, refining it, and determining how each character (and their arcs) affect each of the other characters will help you find the path through the three stories.

    Hurrah!! Good for you!