Using Character Traits to Develop Tone, Setting and Genre


I hope those of you coming off NaNoWriMo had a successful run. I had a good month thanks to cheerleading and accountability provided by the esteemed Ken Schrader.

When you want to write a new character, there are always several characteristics that tend to stick out in your authorial mind. For me, these are usually physical items. These are the easy things, the low hanging writerly fruit. What I hope this blogpost helps promulgate is the next level of characterization- the level of insight and depth where your idea becomes a three-dimensional “being.” These character likes and dislikes can then be utilized to not only deepen your reader’s interest in your protagonist and supporting cast, but also help establish the tone, setting and genre of your story.

  1. What is your character’s favorite food or drink? In my WIP, my character asks for a drink at the bar which requires fresh fruit. This serves two purposes- establishing my character background (in the type of drink she requests), and establishing setting/tone/mood in the response of the bartender. There is no fresh fruit available to make her drink due to a trade embargo. Immediately, the reader knows about place, setting, and tone in this brief exchange without me telling a bunch of backstory that would bore the reader.
  2. What is in your character’s pockets/ briefcase/ purse/ manbag? Hand cream? Extra bullets? A bloody knife? A photograph? Nothing? A hard-boiled character with a romance novel in their bag then softens in the reader’s mind. Your noir detective now has a sense of romance- setting the tone of this piece as different than a traditional noir detective novel ala The Maltese Falcon.   A housewife with a bloody knife in her purse gives a different feel to the story- immediately making the reader think suspense, mystery or intrigue, compared to a housewife with a baby bottle in her purse, which may be a chick-lit story.
  3. How does your character travel from point A to point B? A cowboy who needs to borrow a horse establishes a different set of problems than a cowboy who hitchhikes vs one who pays for gas with a platinum credit card for his new Ford F150. Not only does this say something about your Western, but also about your time period and setting. A nurse who walks to work through a bad neighborhood who has clean hypodermic needles in her purse establishes a different story than a nurse who drives a Mercedes home through a bad neighborhood, with stolen medications from the medication cart in her purse along with a discarded wedding ring.
  4. What does your character do before bed? A child who says a prayer for his father, an astronaut, to return home safely in a post-apocalyptic setting establishes a different tone than a child who prays before bed that he will get a bike for Christmas.

These are but a few of the tricks I use to help me interrogate my characters more fully, not only as independent items of my story, but how they integrate into all elements of the story for a comprehensive whole. I continue to add items to this list, and I routinely go back to these thoughts when I am creating and editing a work to help me crystallize character, story, setting and tone.

I hope this helps!

Until next time,



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