5. What Kind Of Story Are You Telling?

WHEN YOU INVENT A CHARACTER, YOU DEPEND on your sense of what is important to and true to make your decisions. This will continue throughout your telling of the tale – but once you start setting down words, you also have to make many decisions based on what is right for the whole story.  Now it’s time for these newly created characters to get to work.


It is a mistake to think that “good characterization” is the same thing in every work of fiction. Different kinds of stories require different kinds of characters.

But what are the different kinds of stories? Forget about publishing genres for a moment – there isn’t one kind of characterization for academic/literary stories, another kind for science fiction, and still others for westerns, mysteries, thrillers, and historicals.  Instead we’ll look at four basic factors that are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis.  It is the balance among these factors that determines what sort of characterization a story must have, should have, or can have.

The four factors are milieu, idea, character, and event:

The milieu is the world surrounding the characters – the landscape, the interior spaces, the surrounding cultures and the characters emerge from and react to; everything from weather to traffic laws.

The idea is the information that the reader is meant to discover or learn during the process of the story.

Character is the nature of one or more of the people in the story – what they do and why they do it.  It usually leads to or arises from a conclusion about human nature in general.

The events of the story are everything that happens and why.

These factors usually overlap. Character A is part of the milieu surrounding character B.  The idea in the story may include information about the nature of a character; the idea we are meant to discover can be some aspect of the milieu, some previously misunderstood or overlooked event, or the nature of the character.  The events of the story are usually performed by characters or emerge from the milieu, and the discovery of an idea can also be an event in the tale.

Each factor is present in all stories, to one degree or another. Every factor has an implicit structure; if that factor dominates a story, its structure determines the overall shape of the story.


It has become a figure of speech to say that a story “takes place.” But it is quite true: The characters must have a place in which to perform the acts that make up the story – the setting, the milieu of the tale.  The milieu includes all the physical locations that are used – one city or many cities, one building or many buildings, a street, a bus, a farm, a clearing in the woods – with all the sights, smells, and sounds that come with the territory.  The milieu also includes the culture – the customs, laws, social roles, and public expectations that limit and illuminate all that a character thinks and feels and says and does.

In some stories the milieu is very sketchy; in others, it is created in loving detail. Indeed, there are some stories in which the milieu is the primary focus of attention.  Think of Gulliver’s Travels or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: The point of these stories is not to explore the soul of a character or resolve a tense and thrilling plot, but rather to explore a world that is different from our own, comparing it to our own customs and expectations.

The structure of the pure milieu story is simple: Get a character to the setting that the story is about, and then devise reasons for her to move through the world of the story, showing the reader all the interesting physical and social details of the milieu. When you’ve shown everything you want the reader to see, bring the character home.

In most pure milieu stories, the main character is the person from the writer’s and readers’ own time and place, so that the character will experience the world with the reader’s attitudes and perceptions.

In a pure milieu story, the less you characterize the main character, the better.  Her job is to stand in the place of all the readers.  If you make the character too much of an individual, you draw the readers’ attention to her and away from the milieu; instead, you want to keep the readers’ attention on the milieu.  So the main character’s reactions to everything that happens must be as “normal” as possible (what the reader would expect anybody to do in these circumstances).  The character might have a wry humour or a particular slant to her observations, but the more you call attention to the character, the less the story tends to be about milieu.

Few stories, however, are “pure” milieu stories. Travelogues, utopian fiction, satires, and natural science tend to be the only genres in which the pure milieu story can be found.  More often, stories emphasize milieu but develop other story factors as well.  Although the setting might be the primary focus, there is also a strong story line.  The reader then absorbs the milieu indirectly.  In these stories, the major characters don’t have to come from the readers’ own time; usually, in fact, they’ll be permanent residents of the story’s milieu.  The characters’ own attitudes and expectations are part of the cultural ambience, and their very strangeness and unfamiliarity is part of the readers’ experience of the milieu.

Such stories will seem to have the structure of another kind of tale – but the author will reveal that the milieu is a main concern by the close attention paid to the surroundings. The characters will be chosen, not just for their intrinsic interest, but also because they typify certain kinds or classes of people within the culture.  The characters are meant to fascinate us, not because we understand them or share their desires, but because of their strangeness, and what they can teach us about an alien culture.

This kind of story is fairly common in science fiction and fantasy, where the milieu, the world of the story, is often the main attraction. Frank Herbert (Dune), and J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) are most noted for works in which the story line is not tightly structured and the characters tend to be types rather than individuals, yet the milieu is carefully, lovingly drawn.  In such milieu stories the author feels free to digress from the main story line with long passages of explanation, description, or depiction of the culture.  The reader who isn’t interested in the milieu will quickly become bored and set the story aside; but the reader who is fascinated by the world of the story will read on, rapt, through pages of songs and poetry and rituals and ordinary daily life.

How much characterization does a milieu story need? Not very much.  Most characters need only be stereotypes within the culture of the milieu, acting out exactly the role their society expects of them, with perhaps a few eccentricities that help move the story along.  It is no accident that when Tolkien assembled the Fellowship of the Ring in his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there was only one dwarf and one elf – had there been more, it would have been nearly impossible to tell them apart, just as few readers can remember the difference between the two generic hobbits Merry and Pippin.  Because The Lord of the Rings was not a pure milieu story, there are some heroic major characters who are more than local stereotypes, and some that approach full characterization – but characterization simply isn’t a major factor in the appeal of the book.

Besides science fiction and fantasy, milieu stories often crop up in academic/literary fiction (“This story absolutely is contemporary suburban life”) and historical fiction (though most historicals nowadays focus on the romance rather than the setting), while milieu plays are important role in many thrillers. Milieu is the entire definition of the western.

Are you writing a milieu story? Is it mostly the setting that you work on in loving detail?  That doesn’t mean that you can ignore character, especially if you’re trying to tell a compelling story within the milieu; but it does mean that a lot of fully drawn characters aren’t really necessary to your story, and might even be distracting.


The idea story has a simple structure. A problem or question is posed at the beginning of the story, and at the end of the tale the answer is revealed.  Murder mysteries use this structure: Someone is found murdered, and the rest of the story is devoted to discovering who did it, why, and how.  Caper stories also follow the idea story structure: A problem is posed at the beginning (a bank to rob, a rich and dangerous mark to con), the main character or characters devise a plan, and we read on to find out if their plan is in fact the “answer” to the problem.  Invariably something goes wrong and the characters have to improvise, but the story is over when the problem is solved.

How much characterization is needed? In puzzle or locked-room mysteries, there is no need for characterization at all; most authors use only a few eccentricities to “sweeten” the characters, particularly the detective.

In classic English mysteries, like those of Agatha Christie, characterization rarely goes beyond the requirement that a fairly large group of people must have enough of a motive for murder that each can legitimately be suspected of having committed the crime.

The American detective novel tends to demand a little more characterization. The detective himself is usually more than a tight little bundle of eccentricities; instead, he responds to the people around him, not as pieces to be fitted into the puzzle, but as sad or dangerous or good or pathetic human beings.  Such tales, like those of Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald, require the detective to be a keen observer of other people, and their individual natures often twist and turn the story line.  However, such characters – including the detective – are rarely changed; the story only reveals who they are.  In these novels, the characters’ true natures are among the questions that the detective – and the reader – tries to answer during the course of the story.

Caper stories, on the other hand, generally don’t require that their characters be much more than charming or amusing, and only rarely is there any attempt to show a character being transformed by the events in the tale.

In fact, it is the very lack of change in the characters in mystery, detective, and caper stories that allow writers to use the same characters over and over again, to the delight of their readers. A few writers have fairly recently tried to change that, developing and changing their detective characters from book to book.  But that very process of change can end up severely limiting the future possibilities of the character.

When the title character of Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch series became very rich, it made it very difficult to put him in situations where he actually needed to solve a mystery; Mcdonald finally restored to writing the prequels Fletch Won and Fletch, Too, which took place before Fletch got rich, and has announced his intention to stop writing Fletch novels.

Robert Parker took his character Spenser even further, showing him with ongoing and developing relationships, with friendships and transformations that begin in one book and are not forgotten in the next. The results, however, has been a tendency in recent years to reach for increasingly far-fetched plots or to repeat story lines from the past.  It’s hard to do full, rich characterization in an idea story.

Don’t get me wrong though – I don’t think it’s a mistake to attempt full characterization in idea stories; Fletch and Spenser are two of my favourite mystery characters precisely because of the richer-than-normal characterization and the possibility of permanent change. You simply need to recognize that if you choose to do full characterization in an idea story, complete with character transformation, there is a price.

There are idea stories in other genres, of course. Many a science fiction story follows the idea structure perfectly: Characters are faced with a problem – a malfunctioning spaceship is one of the favourites – and, as with a caper, the story consists of finding a plan to solve the problem and carrying it out, with improvisations as needed.  Characterization is not needed except to make the characters entertaining – eccentricity is usually enough.

Allegory is a form in which the idea is everything. The author has composed the story according to a plan; the reader’s job is to decode the plan.  Characters in allegory are rarely more than figures standing for ideas.  While allegory is rarely written today, many writers of academic/literary fiction use symbolism in much the same way – characters exist primarily to stand for an idea, and readers must decode the symbolic structure in order to receive the story.

Does all this mean that idea stories require “bad” characterization? Not at all.  It means that appropriate characterization for an idea story is not necessarily the same thing as appropriate characterization for another kind of story.  Characters stand for ideas, or exist primary to discover them; a character who fulfils her role perfectly may be no more than a stereotype or a bundle of eccentricities, and yet she’ll be characterized perfectly for that story.


The character story is about a person trying to change his role in life. It begins at the point when the main character finds his present situation intolerable and sets out to change; it ends when the character either finds a new role, willingly returns to the old one, or despairs of improving his lot.

What is a character’s “role”? It is his network of relationships with other people and with society at large.  My role in life is father to my children – with a different relationship with each; husband to my wife; son and brother to the family I grew up with.  I have a complex relationship with each of the literary communities I write for, with the full assortment of fans and critics; I also have a constantly shifting role within my religious community, for which I also write.  Like every other human being, I have some interests and longings that aren’t satisfied within the present pattern of my life, but in most cases I foresee ways of fulfilling those desires within the reasonably near future.  All of these relationships, together, are my “role in life.”  I’m reasonably content with my life; it would be difficult to write a character story about me, because stories about happy people are boring.

The character story emerges when some part of a character’s role in life becomes unbearable. A character dominated by a vicious, whimsical parent or spouse; an employee who has become discontented with his job, with growing distaste for the people he works with; a mother weary of her nurturing role and longing for respect from adults; a career criminal consumed by fear and longing to get away; a lover whose partner has been unfaithful and can’t bear to live with the betrayal.  The impossible situation may have been going on for some time, but the story does not begin until the situation comes to a head – until the character reaches the point where the cost of staying becomes too high a price to pay.

Sometimes the protagonist of a character story cuts loose from the old role very easily, and the story consists of a search for a new one.   Sometimes the new role is easy to envision, but breaking away from the old bonds is very hard to do.  “Cutting loose” doesn’t always mean physically leaving – the most complex and difficult character stories are the ones about people who try to change a relationship without abandoning the person.

Needless to say, the character story is the one that requires the fullest characterization. No shortcuts are possible.  Readers must understand the character in the original, impossible role, so that they comprehend and usually, sympathize with the decision to change.  Then the character’s changes must be justified so that the reader never doubts that the change is possible; you can’t just have a worn-out hooker suddenly go to college without showing us that the hunger for education and the intellectual ability to pursue it have always been part of her character.

Remember, though, that not all the people in a character story must be fully characterized. The protagonist – the character whose change is the subject of the story – must be fully characterized; so, too, must each person whose relationship with the protagonist is part of his need for change or his new and satisfactory role.  But other people in the story will be characterized less fully, just as in many milieu, idea, and event stories.    Characterization is not a virtue, it is a technique; you  use it when it will enhance your story, and when it won’t, you don’t.


Every story is an event story in the sense that from time to time something happens that has causes and results. But the story in which the events are the central concern follows a particular pattern: The world is somehow out of order – call it imbalance, injustice, breakdown, evil, decay, disease – and the story is about the effort to restore the old order or establish a new one.

The event story structure is simple: It begins when the main characters become involved in the effort to heal the world’s disease, and ends when they either accomplish their goal or utterly fail to do so.

The world’s disorder can take many forms. It can be a crime unpunished or unavenged: The Count of Monte Cristo is a prime example, as is Oedipus Rex.  The disorder can be a usurper – Macbeth, for instance – who has stolen a place that doesn’t belong to him, or a person who has lost his true position in the world, like Prince Edward in The Prince and the Pauper.  The disorder can be an evil force, bent on destruction, like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings or Lord Foul in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever – that is also the way Nazis, Communists, and terrorists are often used in thrillers.  The disorder can be an illicit love that cannot be allowed to endure and yet cannot be denied, as in Wuthering Heights and the traditional stories of Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Isolde.  The disorder can be a betrayal of trust, as in the medieval romance Havelok the Dane – or the romance of Watergate that was enacted in America’s newspapers and television news during the early 1970s.

I think that the event story – the structure at the heart of the romantic tradition for more than two thousand years – might well be the reason for the existence of Story itself. It arises out of the human need to make sense of the things happening around us; the event story starts with the assumption that some sort of order should exist in the world, and our very belief in order in fiction helps us to create order in reality.

How important is characterization in the event story? Most of the time, it’s up to the author.  It’s possible to tell a powerful event story in which the characters are nothing more than what they do and why they do it – we can come out of such tales feeling as if we know the character because we have lived through so much with her, even though we’ve learned almost nothing about the other aspects of her character.  (Although Lancelot, for instance, is a major actor in the Arthurian legends, he’s seldom been depicted as a complex individual beyond the simple facts of his relationship to Arthur and to Guinevere.)  Yet it is also possible to characterize several people in the story without at all interfering with the forward movement of the tale.  In fact, the process of inventing characters often introduces more story possibilities, so that event and character both grow.


Whenever you tell a story, you make an implicit contract with the reader. Within the first few paragraphs or pages, you tell the reader implicitly what kind of story this is going to be; the reader then knows what to expect, and holds the thread of that structure throughout the tale.

If you begin with a murder, for instance, and focus on those characters who have reason to find out how, why, and by whom the murder was committed, the reader can reasonably expect that the story will continue until those questions are answered – the reader expects an idea story.

If, on the other hand, you begin with the murder victim’s wife, concentrating on how widowhood has caused a sudden, unbearable disruption in the patterns of her life, the reader can fairly expect that the story will use the character structure, following the widow until she finds an acceptable now role for herself.

Choosing one structure does not preclude using another. For instance, in the first version of the story, the murder mystery, you can also follow the widow’s attempts to find a new role for herself.  The reader will gladly follow that story line as a subplot, and will be delighted if you resolve it along with the mystery.  However, the reader would feel cheated if you began the novel as a mystery, but ended it when the widow falls in love and remarries – without over solving the mystery at all!  You can do that once, perhaps, for effect – but readers will feel, rightly, that you misled them.

On the other hand, if you establish at the beginning of the story that it is about the widow herself and her search for a new role in life, you can also weave mystery into the story line as a subplot; if you do, readers will expect you to resolve the mystery, but they won’t regard that as the climax of the story. They would rightly be outraged if you ended the book with the explanation of the mystery – and left the widow still in a state of flux.

The rule of thumb is this: Readers will expect a story to end when the first major source of structural tension is resolved. If the story begins as an idea story, the reader expects it to end when the idea is discovered, the plan unfolded.  If the story begins as a milieu story, readers will gladly follow any number of story lines of every type, letting them be resolved here and there as needed, continuing to read in order to discover more of the milieu.  A story that begins with a character in an intolerable situation will not feel finished until the character is fully content or finally resigned.  A story that begins with an unbalanced world will not end until the world is balanced, justified, reordered, healed – or utterly destroyed beyond hope of restoration.

It’s as if you begin the story by pushing a boulder off the top of a hill. No matter what else happens before the end of the story, the reader will not be satisfied until the boulder comes to rest somewhere.

That is your first contract with the reader – you will end what you began. Digressions will be tolerated, to a point; but digressions will almost never be accepted as a substitute for fulfilling the original contract.

You also make a second contract all the way through a story. Anything you spend much time on will amount to something in the story.  I remember seeing one of Bob Hope’s and Bing Crosby’s road movies when I was a child – The Road to Rio.  In it, the director constantly interrupts the main story to show Jerry Colonna, their moustachioed comic sidekick, leading to a troop of mounted soldiers to rescue our heroes.  In the end, however, the story is completely resolved without Colonna’s cavalry ever arriving.  The director cuts one last time to Colonna, who pulls his horse to a stop, looks at the camera, and says something like, “It didn’t amount to anything, but it was thrilling, wasn’t it?”  It was very – but the humour rested entirely on the fact that when a story spends time on a character, an event, a question, or a setting, the audience expects that the main thread of the story will somehow be affected by it.

Examine your story, either in your head, in outline, or in draft form. What is it that most interests you?  Where are you spending the most time and effort?  Are you constantly researching or inventing more details about the setting?  Is it the detailed unravelling of the mystery that fascinates you?  Do you constantly find yourself exploring a character?  Or is it the actual events that you care about most?  Your story will work best when you use the structure demanded by the factor that you care most about.

If you love the mystery, structure the tale as an idea story – begin with the question and devote the bulk of your story time to answering it. If you care most about the milieu, let the reader know it from the start by beginning with a character’s arrival in the new world (how long does it take Alice to get down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass into Wonderland?) or by concentrating on the details of the place and culture; then spend the bulk of your time discovering the wonders and curiosities of the milieu.  If you care most about a character, begin with his or her dilemma and spend the bulk of your time on the effort toward change.  If you care most about the events, begin at the point where the characters become involved with the world’s sickness, and spend the bulk of your time in the story on their efforts to restore balance.

The techniques and structures of the other story factors are always available to you for subplots or complications, but keep them in a relatively subordinate position. In The Lord of the Rings, there are several event stories going on within the overall milieu – Aragorn, the out-of-place king, coming to take his rightful throne; Denethor, the steward who reached for power beyond his ability to control, threatening the safety of the kingdom and the life of his son until Gandalf finally succeeds in stopping him; Frodo, Samwise, and Gollum, the three hobbit ringbearers, in their twisted, braided paths to the cracks of doom where, by casting in the ring, they will be able to put an end to the evil, destructive power of Sauron.

Yet when all these story lines are resolved, the reader is not disappointed to find that the story goes on. Tolkien begins a completely new story line, the Scouring of the Shire, which is related to the other stories but is barely hinted at until the hobbits actually come home.

Event then the tale is not done – Tolkien still has to show us Frodo sailing west, along with the elves who can no longer live in Middle Earth, at least not in their former glory. Was this the resolution of a question raised at the beginning of the book?  No.  Nor was it the resolution of a character dilemma – Frodo was quite content when the story began.  And Frodo’s and the elves’ presence in Middle Earth was not, when the story began, a disequilibrium that needed to be resolved.

So why are we still reading? Because The Lord of the Rings is a milieu story.  The author establishes from the beginning that he is going to spend large amounts of time simply exploring the world of Middle Earth.  We are going to have detailed accounts of birthday parties, village life, customs and habits of the people; we will visit Tom Bombadil, who has almost nothing to do with the story, but has everything to do with the underlying mythos of Middle Earth; we linger with the Ents, we pass through the Mines of Moria, we visit the Riders of Rohan, travel with the legendary dead; and while Tolkien weaves all these places and peoples into a story that is generally interesting, sometimes creating characters we care about, there is no story  line or character that becomes our sole reason for reading.  It is the world itself that Tolkien cared most about, and so the audience for the story is going to be those readers who also come to love the world of Middle Earth.  So it is no accident that the story does not end until we see, clearly, that Middle Earth has ceased to exist as it was – we are entering a new age, and the milieu we were exploring is now closed.

All the MICE factors are present in The Lord of the Rings, but it is the milieu structure that predominates, as it should.  It would be absurd to criticize The Lord of the Rings for not having plot unity and integrity, because it is not an event story.  Likewise, it would be absurd to criticize the book for its stereotyped one-to-a-race character or for the many characters about whom we learn little more than what they do in the story and why they do it, because this is not a character story.  In fact, we should probably praise Tolkien for having done such a good job of working creditable story lines and the occasional identifiable character into a story that was, after all, about Something Else.

I’m dwelling on these structural matters at some length because this is a Chapter on characterization, and for us writers to characterize well, we must characterize appropriately.

Character stories really came into their own at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both the novelty and the extraordinary brilliance of some of the writers who worked with this story structure have led many critics and teachers to believe that only this kind of story can be “good.” This may be a true judgement for many individuals – that is, the only kind of story they enjoy is the character story – but it is not true in the abstract, for the other kinds of stories have long traditions, with many examples of brilliance along the way.

However, character stories have been so dominant that they have forced storytellers in the other traditions to pay more attention to characterization. Even though a story may follow the idea, milieu, or event structure, many readers expect a deeper level of characterization.  The story is not about a transformation of character, but the readers still expect to get to know the characters; and even when they don’t expect it, they are willing to allow the author to devote a certain amount of attention to character without regarding it as a digression.  This is the fashion of our time, and you can’t disregard it.

But it’s a mistake to think that deep, detailed characterization is an absolute virtue in storytelling. You have to look at your own reasons for telling a story.  If it’s the puzzle – the idea – that attracts you, then that will probably be the factor in your story that you handle best; your natural audience will consist of readers who also care most about the idea.  A certain amount of attention to characterization may help broaden your audience and increase your readers’ pleasure in the story, but if you go into characterization as an unpleasant chore, something you must do in order to be a “good writer,” chances are your characterization will be mechanical and ineffective, and instead of broadening your audience, it will interfere with your story.  If you don’t care about or believe in a character’s deepest drives and troubled past, neither will your readers.

So if you choose not to devote much time to characterization in a particular story, this won’t necessarily mean you “failed” or “wrote badly.” It may mean that you understand yourself and your story.

And because you chose to tell one story in which characterization played a lesser role doesn’t mean you “can’t characterize.” A good understanding of characterization includes knowing when it’s appropriate to concentrate on character – and when it isn’t.


©MarshallDodgson, 1973.


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