Characterization: showing and setting

Two exercises about characterization from the sixth edition of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft:

Write down three adjectives (beautiful, aggressive, haughty) that describe a character in your story-in-progress. (Be sure the adjectives describe different qualities, not the same ones. For instance, handsome, well groomed, muscular are too similar as opposed to handsome, talkative, and mechanically inclined, which show different aspects of the character.)

  • Without using any of the adjectives (or synonyms), write a half-page scene or passage that shows the character engaged in action and perhaps speaking some dialogue that will suggest the selected qualities.
  • Exchange exercises and read them over. Based on this depiction of the character, guess which three qualities your partner wished to convey. Point out the specific lines that created these impressions.


Brainstorm details for your story-in-progress. Begin by putting yourself in the mind of your character and focusing on the setting. Take one to two minutes to make notes in response to each question.

  • What sounds can you hear in this place?
  • What is the most distant sound you can hear, the sound that you might not notice if you weren’t paying special attention?
  • What smells do you associate with the place?
  • What are you wearing? How does it feel against your skin?
  • What else can you touch? Not only with your fingertips, but with your whole body-the small of your back, for instance, or the soles of your feet.
  • What can you taste?
  • What colors do you associate with this place?
  • What do you see to the left, overhead, on the horizon?
  • What emotions does this place evoke in you?
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