Also check out my Twitter and Facebook pages!


Monday, September 9, 2013

Characterization Through Setting and Plot

Picture Credit: http://www.despair.com/hope.html
I really struggled to find a picture that would capture the idea of using plot and setting to build characterization. I finally decided to use this humorous one because generally characterization is best accomplished by raising the stakes until the situation starts to feel out of control.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start with a definition here.

What is Characterization?

Characterization is a portrayal or description of a given character. This portrayal can be regarding physical traits. But the more important characterization is generally regarding emotional, intellectual, spiritual, or psychological traits. A bland statement of fact that a character has a certain trait will never be as effective as portraying that fact through the setting and the plot.

How Does Setting Assist Characterization?

The setting involves the place, culture, society, religion, and every other aspect of what surrounds the character. Setting can push the character into making decisions he or she wouldn't have otherwise made. It can confront the character and force him or her to take sides or to determine what he or she thinks is right and wrong. For example, a character who grows up in a gang culture will have very different beliefs and thoughts about life than one who grows up in a small farming community. Both characters can decide that they are not satisfied to follow in their parents' footsteps--but their different backgrounds will make them different.

If you want to show your reader that a character values a certain thing--say upholding the law--above all else, stick that character in a setting that challenges that value--maybe a law is passed that he or she strongly disagrees with. 

The best settings will make the main character confront his or her own ideas so that the character gets to know himself or herself better.

How Does Plot Assist Characterization?

The plot is the overall storyline. Working with the setting, use the plot to push the character. For example, in the first Hunger Games book, the setting is a dystopian society where the hunger games are held. The plot gets started when Prim's name is drawn. This starts the chain that gets Katniss into the games.

As with the setting, the plot is an effective way to show who your characters really are. In The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson, the main character prides himself on his strict honesty. But the plot progresses to put him in a position where he has to choose between selling illegal drugs just once or letting his best friend (who previously saved him from poverty) lose his business and become impoverished.

Some new authors have a tendency to want to be nice to their characters. Their main character is such a nice person that they can't stand to let bad things happen. Guess what--no one wants to read a book about how happy and perfect someone's life is. If there is nothing to overcome, then the characterization and the plot will both be bland.

In Summary

To conclude this discussion, I want to re-emphasize the importance of raising the character's stakes. When times get hard, people find out more about themselves. And the readers get an amazing view of your character that a list of personality traits will never duplicate.


  1. Once upon a time I had a problem with beating up my characters. Now my siblings accuse me of being TOO mean to them. Yes, your characters deserve moments of rest where they aren't getting whalloped on all sides, but as an author whose conference I once attended stated, "you need to beat the snot out of them."
    The more you write about your characters, the better you'll get to know them. Instead of saying "she was shy and angry." You can show it by the way your character reacts.
    Warning: it may take several drafts to do this. ;)

  2. I agree. My first draft is always full of bland statements about what the character thinks and traits he or she has. It isn't until the basic story is on the page that I can go back and look at making the character react in ways that shows emotion--focusing on that one thing sure makes a difference, though. :)