Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Characterization Through Setting

By Karen Albright Lin

You’re typing away on your amazing action scene. Your heart races. You love your protagonist and want to knock your antagonist down. But down to what? Unless your story takes place in zero gravity like the hit movie, readers don’t want to float ungrounded through a plot, even one with well-drawn characters. We crave a sense of place, we want it to matter, and we want its description to be reflective of the POV character’s personality.

A sense of when and where your story takes place offers context and tone, and helps us better imagine your tale. It helps us believe these people you’ve created are truly living it.

Readers need more than a character wandering through a nondescript park. Are there children giggling on a jungle gym? Is there a sheepdog wrapping its leash around its owner? What is the vegetation? How does it smell? Are there bird droppings dotting the sidewalk or dirt path?

It’s not as simple as creating a list of facts about the locale. We bump up our prose several notches closer to marketable by conveying POV characteristics and mood through HOW those details are described. To one character, splotches of bird poop might paint an abstract masterpiece leading straight to the cocoon of a turret-crowned church. Another may grumble as he navigates through the maze of filthy bird shit.

Make the experience of setting unique to your character. He is an eyewitness and, as is true of all witnesses, his perceptions will be affected by his mood and his nature.

Dialogue and action are only two layers of characterization. The narrative, your internals, should also include every one of your POV’s senses plus her interpretation of what is in her environment. For example, let us know which country we’re in through sounds and smells. Maybe it’s the turmeric-raison pungency of Morocco. Through setting we also get a feel for its culture.

Don’t bore us. Sprinkle details into your narrative a little at a time. Steinbeck’s pages-long descriptions would not be as tolerated by today’s impatient readers. A few vivid descriptors go a long way.

If your setting creates a believable backdrop for your tension, epiphany, or action, you’ve painted a tangible moment that your audience will experience vicariously through your POV’s senses.

Texture, weather, and atmosphere are all important parts of your setup. They add power to your narrative. Close your eyes, imagine you are your character. What’s around you? How do you feel about it? Then share it with us.

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at

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