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Develop Characters Like a Storytelling Pro Using Scoring

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

The most important lesson every ceramist knows is score and slip. My high school teacher may as well have tattooed the phrase on every student’s forehead. Each demonstration, tutorial, and walk through she gave hinged on those two words. At the time, I just didn’t know it would become the most important tool for developing characters in fiction.

In pottery, scoring is the act of scratching a portion of clay so it can adhere to another piece. Slip is used to blend the pieces into a single, seamless work. Without scoring the pieces, they’re pretty much guaranteed to come apart in the kiln.

Stacks of bagged clay

When I was working on the Mando build, I sanded down the plastic material of the 3D print so the paint would adhere better. Some pieces of the print had been glued together, since this 3D printers could only print so much at one time, I had to score the smooth surfaces with an exacto-knife so the paint had ridges to cling onto. It seems counterintuitive, roughing up a surface so the finished product is level, but our lives are like that.

Things that are torn up are remembered better. We recall events that are painful, different, out of place, uneven, more than the every day routine. It’s in our nature to find the thing that’s offsetting our equilibrium (or just upsetting us). Scoring is the pain that makes the new stuff stick, and the new stuff is the beginning of your story.

Developing characters in writing is one of the most challenging and crucial aspects to successful storytelling. Characters require that their author, otherwise known as their parent, devise a harrowing backstory, a perfect heroic name, a compelling world never seen before yet not too foreign for audiences, all while crafting a plot that conveys whatever the story is about. But you can’t know what the story is about until you know your character(s).

Metaphorical Mugs

Let’s say our main character is a lovely ceramic bowl. We’ve kneaded out the air pockets, wheeled it into shape, but it’s actually not a bowl at all. We want a mug. So, we roll out more clay and shape it into a handle, and it’s ready to be attached. We score both the mug and the handle, with some slip and a whole lot of smoothing, it’s off to the kiln.

Your protagonist is that ceramic bowl, waiting to transform into a mug. Their yet to be fired clay represents everything they are up until the story actually begins at page one. They’re not in the story yet; we haven’t attached the new piece with any scoring. They’re perfect and whole and still full of hope, with dreams of becoming whatever they set their mind to. But they are not the artist.

Neutral ceramic mugs on a wooden shelf

The handle, or any décor you wish to attach to the piece, is an extension of the clay’s life. It is the story you wish to tell. But in order to transform a bowl into a mug, or even a moisture farmer into a saber wielding Jedi, scoring is required to make it happen. The new piece (the plot) must connect with the bowl’s scoring (the character’s backstory) to transform them into a mug (something they weren’t before). Scoring is what packs a punch, makes the plot stick, and allows the character to develop into an entirely new work of art.

Scoring your character(s) essentially means, well, scarring them. And what leaves scars on us all? The past. Scars are proof that you’ve lived. Breathed. Felt. Cried. Grieved. Scoring your character(s), in terms of story, equates to backstory. It’s the pain they constantly remember. The wound that keeps them from getting what they want. The misbelief they hold most dear. Which, in turn, is the key to getting everything they want. They have to patch the scoring with slip, and having overcome their scoring, beaten the demons holding them back, they bloom into an entirely new creature. Scoring is the gateway to character development.

Character Development Definition

Character development is defined as the inner journey a fictional character undergoes over the course of a novel, film, TV series, videogame, or other story. Note the word inner. It is separate from the external events that happen to them through the plot. Character development is a technique writers use to convey story. Story is the combination of character and plot.

The purpose of character development is to show how a person overcomes, or surrenders to, their inner conflict. Inner conflict comes from wanting something, something real, something concrete and finite, while warring against a traumatic incident from their past that prevents them from obtaining it.

A woman working on her laptop outdoors

Humans are naturally inclined to favor comfort. Staying in equilibrium is what’s kept our species alive for thousands of years. So when that balance is thrown off, we try to put things back into stasis. We don’t want the boat to rock. But that doesn’t make for a very interesting story. It is the storyteller’s responsibility to capsize the boat. To stand in the character’s way and throw every hurdle at them to get them to change, to fulfill their potential, to transform from a simple bowl into a magnificent mug.

Separating Character Development from Counterparts

Novel character development is part of character building. The process goes hand in hand with world building, backstory, world view, and plot. Messy business, this book writing thing. Writing character development does not equate to theme, but it is closely linked to it through the plot. Theme is more of the unspoken word. The meaning between the lines, in the blankness of a page, the moments between heartbeats.

Backstory, or scoring, if you’ve been paying attention, is an event in the character’s past. It’s not the entirety of the character nor is it the plot. Backstory doesn’t need an elaborate stage or a prologue or a red carpet rolled out for it to make its statement. It already has in the shaping of the character’s worldview. Scoring are the unseen grooves that hold the plot together. The constant guiding light that misdirects the character as they try to see their way through the muddled mess you’ve thrown them in.

A woman sitting in a car watching the sun set

Humans are wired for prediction. We love to know what the weather is beforehand. We like to know our route on a cross-country roadtrip. It’s these predictions that keep us safe and have us constantly turning to fiction so that we can better navigate our own situations. Understanding one’s internal struggle provides us with the ammunition to overcome and transform. Character development in a story isn’t just for novel writing.

Character Development for Antagonists

Character development can be good or bad, hero or villain, end in victory or tragedy. Only after a character overcomes their inner conflict can their want be received, but if a character succumbs to their internal conflict and the woes of their past dictate their present, it’s typically not rainbows and singing woodland creatures. Their character has devolved. Been reduced to a lower state. They haven’t overcome anything and therefore aren’t rewarded. This form of character development is often reserved for villains, antagonists, and anti-heros.

Now, you don’t have to write your story that way. Perhaps your villain, or even your hero, doesn’t change over the course of the plot. But then what is the story? What is the point of reading, or watching, if not to glean information in how to overcome the adversaries of our lives? If character development is excluded from a story, you’ll only have a series of events that don’t impact the character emotionally outside of in-the-moment fear.

Stories can be either plot-driven or character-driven. Plot-driven stories don’t include character development. Character-driven stories include character development with the delivery of plot. So, technically, character-driven stories are also plot-driven. And yet, if the plot is driving the story, character takes a back seat and the character(s) become inauthentic.

Character development is necessary if you want your story to succeed and stand above the rest. Readers, or you yourself, might not remember what happens on page 32, but they’ll remember their reaction to it. And that is the result of scoring.

A blue ceramic mug on a wooden table

So before you go sprinkling a tragic backstory into your novel for kicks, think about how that scoring of your character elevates the plot at hand. How is it building story in a meaningful way? Whether you’re screenwriting, novel writing, or just plain copywriting, scoring is the most important technique when writing character development. Who knows? Your bowl might just become a magnificent mug.

How does scoring character(s) affect the plot of your story? I’ll see you in the comments.

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