The Larger Picture: Character, Setting, Story

The Larger Picture and the Smallest Picture, part 1

The Larger Picture: an Overview of Character, Setting, Story

Let's look at the big picture. Each story has a few basic components.

Focal Character:

The focal character or Protagonist has something to lose or gain, something at stake. The reader cares about what happens to her, what choices she makes, what results from those decisions.


The reader experiences each scene through a viewpoint person's senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, AND emotion. This creates richness, color, realism and mood in your setting. Viewpoint character is not necessarily the focal character.

For example, the heroine (focal character) is Betty, with an abusive past. The viewpoint character is her friend Lisa, visiting Betty's parents' home for the first time:

Lisa gaped at the tall columns flanking the double front doors, as white as sand on a tropical beach, reflecting the bright sunlight. Color burst from the flowers lining the marble walkway, a white carpet lined with crimson as they approached the house. The air had a faint tang from the stiff winds blowing from the nearby bay, which shoved at her back as they climbed the steps to the portico. Two huge windows on either side of the front doors glinted like gaudy diamond earrings. When Betty turned and glared at her, Lisa snapped her mouth shut and followed in the wake of her friend's stomping footsteps.

If the scene were from Betty's viewpoint, it would be different:

The front windows followed her with a malevolent gaze as she approached the front doors, as if to mock her for being forced to return after all these years. The sunlight stung her skin. She forced her feet onward, step by step, keeping her eyes lowered to the blood-red flowers dripping down either side of the concrete walkway. The stiff wind from the bay slapped her cheeks and jerked her hair around her face. Why did she come back here? Why had she let Lisa come with her?


A story is CHANGE, both internal and external. Events change (external). The character changes (internal).

Your character has to DO SOMETHING. A character who just reacts to external events is boring. Your character should desire to get from point A to point B, and makes certain decisions to get to her goal. There are consequences she reacts to or obstacles she avoids.

For most stories, your character has to BECOME DIFFERENT. In general, a character who doesn't change is boring. At some point, your character has some realization or "Ah-ha!" moment that changes her and (sometimes) the outcome of the story.

There is an exception to this—some characters don’t change, which also impacts the outcome of the story. The endpoint is the same—the story is influenced by the character’s change or non-change.


All this leads to the smaller picture, Motivation-Reaction Units, the building blocks of your scenes. For now, think up a single scene. Choose a focal character, a viewpoint character (it can be the same person), and a setting. We'll expand it in the next article on Motivation-Reaction Units.

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

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