Out-of-character Moments In Fiction

What does it mean to act ‘out-of-character’? Unfortunately, audiences are influenced by the folk psychology that people behave somewhat consistently. That’s not the case.

I was once reading through a list which described common problems in short story submissions, by someone who reads a lot of amateur short stories. One plot they see a lot: A calm, sensible, normal character suddenly snaps. Maybe the main character is on a train, another passenger is smacking gum, the main character gets really annoyed with this, perhaps they’re angry about something else; they transfer the violence and whop the other passenger over the head. The end.


  1. It’s not saying much of interest about humankind.
  2. It’s been done.
  3. (Supposedly) People just don’t work like that. A character who commits a violent act will have a history of violence. This needs to be foreshadowed, otherwise the reader will feel they wouldn’t really act like that.

The example above is an extreme example of characterisation and plotting done badly, but you’ll see it in milder form if you hang around writing groups long enough.

But focusing on the third problem, is it really the case that there are ‘restrained people’ vs. ‘violent people’?  Is there no situation on earth where you, personally, would not snap?


An audience does expect fictional characters to have some sort of ‘enduring character’. Writers are influenced equally by the following folk psychology:

People are often assumed to have personality traits (introvert, timid, etc.) as well as virtues (honesty, courage, etc.) or vices (the seven deadly sins, etc.). In folk psychology, these features are assumed to be stable over time and across situations. Proverbs in all languages testify to this assumption:

  • Who tells one lie will tell a hundred.
  • Who lies also steals.
  • Who steals an egg will steal an ox.
  • Who keeps faith in small matters, does so in large ones.
  • Who is caught red-handed once will always be distrusted.

If folk psychology is right, predicting and explaining behaviour should be easy. A single action will reveal an underlying trait or disposition and allow us to predict behaviour on an indefinite number of other occasions when the disposition could manifest itself.


But of course, it’s not possible to predict behaviour. If it were, we’d live in a Minority Report society.

Folk psychology is demonstrably false.

also John Elster

All sorts of psychological experiments have been carried out to show that humans are not rational, though we do aim for rationality. I won’t summarise those here. We are irrational humans with unstable traits and little in the way of enduring character. Psychologists know that the best predictor of how a human will behave is not what sort of ‘character’ they have, but rather what sort of situation they are placed in. Obvious, right? But only when it’s pointed out.

But the audience expects characters to have ‘character’. (I mean, it’s right there in the word.) Any storyteller thereby faces a balancing act: The creation of characters whose traits are believably stable, but not so stable as to seem unrealistic.


For those of us trained in the humanities, John Elster’s sociological toolkit may feel a little foreign, but this is where the humanities overlap with sociological science:

  1. The acts and utterances of fictional characters have to be intelligible. [Intelligible = it has to make sense to the audience. See its subcategories below.]
  2. The author has to meet the twin requirements of fullness and parsimony. By ‘fullness’, a writer might talk about ’rounded’ characterisation. We often hear about that. The concept of parsimony is less explored among writers. The principle of parsimony (Occam’s razor) dictates that a theory should provide the simplest possible (viable) explanation for a phenomenon. It must ‘feel like it fits’. Don’t overcomplicate your character motivations, in other words.
  3. The work must flow downhill, minimizing the appeal to accidents and coincidences. Coincidences that happen in real life often don’t work in fiction. This is a well-known phenomenon among writers. If you tell an experienced critique partner that your story is ‘based on something that happened in real life’ their heart may sink. So often, real life incidents, no matter how interesting, don’t work as fiction because they contain events that seem like contrivances when presented as fiction. When unbelievable turning points are pointed out, the beginner writer may say, “But it really happened!” as if that counts for anything. Elster encourages writers to respect the fact that readers are not finely attuned to probability theory. ‘The overall plausibility of a scenario depends much more on the plausibility of its weakest links than on the number of links. I believe the author should respect this particular quirk of the readers, since it prevents him from resorting to facile but unlikely coincidences.’
  4. The work must offer a psychologically gratifying pattern of the buildup and resolution of tension. This blog is all about the aforementioned ‘psychologically gratifying pattern’. You can find it explained here.


Elster also explains that intelligibility can be absolute or relative. Intelligibility can also be global or local.

  • Absolute intelligibility: Can any human being behave in this way?
  • Relative global intelligibility: Is the behaviour of this particular fictional person consistent with the overall character the author has already set up?
  • Relative local intelligibility: Is the behaviour of this fictional person consistent with earlier behaviour the author has already set up?

The requirements of absolute and of relative local intelligibility are crucial constraints on authorial rationality. But relative global intelligibility is not a constraint. In fact, if an author lets relative global intelligibility constrain the work, it may be seen by the audience as an aesthetic flaw.

Fortunately, we don’t have to be fully paid up social scientists in order to understand all this, because TV Tropes explains it in layman’s terms:

Real people will not always behave in the most expected way, and indeed, it is unrealistic to expect a fictional character to behave any more consistently. Depending on the general circumstances, immediate situation, and who is around, the mildest individual can just snap.

Out-of-character Moments

Some types of stories require a hero who acts uniformly bravely, as in a thriller, or uniformly comically, as in a sit-com.

So-called literary fiction can overcome the audience expectation that character is global. Dostoyevsky is known as an author who disregarded the folk psychology of character consistency. His characters change their behaviour depending on the situation they are in, which is the most ‘real’ depiction of humanity available to us in a work of fiction.

Can you think of more modern stories in which characters behave according to the situation rather than according to some folk psychological concept of global character?

The Expectation Of Character Consistency In Children’s Literature

It’s unlikely your first example is from the world of children’s literature. Audiences may have less time for local versus global intelligibility in stories for children:

Consistency implies that a literary character cannot have contradictory traits. Neither can characters behave in a manner incompatible with what has already been revealed about them, in description, actions, or the narrator’s comments. Normally we place a higher demand for consistency on literary [fictional] characters than on real people. Since children’s literature is generally didactic, we place still higher demands for consistency on children’s literature characters. Characters must be understood from the text alone; therefore, any radical deviation in the way a character is presented will be perceived by readers as an artistic flaw.

Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature

Folk psychology is something we must resist, in our real lives and in our reactions to fiction, because it is hugely liberating to understand that situations rather than enduring characteristics are key to behaviour. It is especially important when coming to grips with the situations of historically marginalised groups.


Header photo by Mark Daynes on Unsplash

Paul’s Case by Willa Cather

Paul's Case

As a New Zealander, I have a longterm interest in Katherine Mansfield. I’m coming late to American Willa Cather, but the first thing I notice is that she was writing short stories in the same era as Mansfield. Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather wrote novels as well as short stories. Cather lived a full life, to the age of 73. Mansfield died of tuberculosis age 34. Many have wondered if Mansfield would have eventually written novels had she lived longer, but I feel this wondering is afflicted by the belief that novels are somehow a ‘graduation’ of the short story. Short stories are an art form in their own right. Many successful novelists find short stories impossible.

Cather was a bit older than Mansfield, born in 1873. Mansfield was born in 1888. A lot was happening around that time, especially regarding women’s rights. There may well have been a generational difference between the two women (as well as a geographical one). Also, Mansfield was right into Freud, whereas Willa Carther may not have even heard of him. (Does it make any difference, when it comes to ideas that pervade the culture and influence writers?)

What interests me after reading the title of “Paul’s Case” is the writers’ shared interest in the field of psychology. “Paul’s Case” is an exploration of a high school student’s inner thoughts. One of Mansfield’s short stories is even titled “Psychology“. That said, “Paul’s Case” reminds me most of Mansfield’s “Bliss“: A character exists in a dreamworld where everything is perfect, but in ‘returning home’ (actually in Paul’s case, metaphorically in Bertha’s case), our main characters are forced to face the mundane existence of their actual lives.

He spent more than an hour in dressing, watching every stage of his toilet carefully in the mirror. Everything was quite perfect; he was exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be.

— Paul’s Case

She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something . . . divine to happy…

— Bliss

The original full title is “Paul’s Case: A Study In Temperament”. These days, we tend to use ‘personality’ for humans and ‘temperament’ for pets.

Paul’s Case” is available to read online, and there’s an entire Wikipedia article about it. My own interest is in the plot structure, from a short story writer’s point of view.


Paul grows up in comfortable, white, suburban Pittsburgh. He has no understanding of his own privilege and despises the entire place. I suppose the irony is that if it were a more culturally diverse place, it would be more interesting to someone like Paul. Yet he despises what little cultural diversity does exist.

Later the story shifts to Newark. Unlike Paul, Willa Cather herself didn’t grow up in Pittsburgh, but did live there as an adult for 10 years, working as a young teacher. Like Paul, she later transplanted herself to New York, as Paul transplants himself to New York to start a new life (with a wholly invented back story).

This is a world in which it’s easy to run away, never to be found again. Pre Internet, pre-DNA, when businesses dealt in cheques rather than direct transfers. It’s entirely plausible that Paul might get away with his crime.

New York is described like this:

Paul took a carriage and drove up Fifth Avenue toward the Park. The snow had somewhat abated, carriages and tradesmen’s wagons were hurrying to and fro in the winter twilight, boys in woollen mufflers were shovelling off the doorsteps, the avenue stages made fine spots of color against the white street. Here and there on the corners were stands, with whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases, against the sides of which the snow-flakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley, somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow. The Park itself was a wonderful stage winter-piece.

Which reminds me very much of another Katherine Mansfield short story, also about a fantasist who doesn’t really belong in the city — “The Tiredness of Rosabel“.

Rosabel looked out of the windows [of the bus]; the street was blurred and misty, but light striking on the panes turned their dullness to opal and silver, and the jewellers’ shops seen through this, were fairy palaces.

Like Rosabel, Paul gets to his room and flops about in a tired fashion, loving the city but viewing it as an outsider, accustomed to doing so after a lifetime (thus far) of imagining his situation is better than it really is.


“Paul’s Case” is basically a ‘character study’. Paul might be any number of young men of this era.

But even the most interesting ‘character studies’ are not stories in their own right, until they include the following seven elements. In a character study short story, these elements sort of take backseat to the narrator’s description of character. But they’re still there.


Paul is described as a ‘dandy’ which is now a comical word in English. I remember my native-Japanese Japanese language lecturer giving us a Japanese word then telling us that it means ‘dandy’ in English and the entire class laughed spontaneously.

Literary scholars have named Paul as an example of ‘the village sissy’ trope.

But at the turn of the 20th century, ‘dandy’ described a certain kind of well-dressed man who was also self-absorbed. The dandy was transgressive, gender-wise, which Willa Cather explains in her narrative. Transgressing gender norms provokes an uncanny response in a culture which works with a clear gender binary. So Paul has that against him.

Paul’s on-the-page shortcoming is revolves around the huge gap between his ideal imagined life and his reality.

Cather begins the story speaking as a distant narrator, but here we are inside Paul’s head:

Paul alighted from his car and went slowly down one of the side streets off the main thoroughfare. It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where business men of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived.

If Paul were a child of one of those business men he so despises, he might actually be happier. Nothing breeds unhappiness like affluenza, as we might now call it. Paul wants to live in an exotic world, “a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease”.

in Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness…a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty

Instead, he lives in an environment which test his phobias:

He was horribly afraid of rats, so he did not try to sleep, but sat looking distrustfully at the dark, still terrified least he might have awakened his father.

Willa Cather uses what others have called ‘side-shadowing‘ to describe the way Paul thinks about his life. He plays numerous circumstances out in his head. I do wonder how common this is, in a population. Here, Paul goes through all the scenarios that might happen if his father caught him sneaking in through the window:

Suppose his father had heard him getting in at the window, and come down and shot him for a burglar? Then, again, suppose his father had come down, pistol in hand, and he had cried out in time to save himself, and his father had been horrified to think how nearly he had killed him? Then, again, suppose a day should come when his father would remember that night, and wish there had been no warning cry to stay his hand? With this last supposition Paul entertained himself until daybreak.

(I’m glad I live in a country with strict gun control. My father was required to hand in his inherited antique WW1 gun in the late 1980s. He couldn’t buy bullets for it anyhow. I have never once wondered if an action might lead to me being shot.)

Paul has a holier-than-thou, condescending attitude towards the people who sit on ‘stoops’ — the word itself is in rubber glove quote marks, showing he doesn’t approve of the word, or of the practice.

Paul is eventually revealed to be a full-on fantasist. Willa Cather reveals the extent of Paul’s lying slowly. At first she reveals that Paul lies to himself. This feels harmless. After all, doesn’t everyone fantasise about a better life sometimes? But as often happens in stories, when a character has an active imagination, Paul is eventually revealed to be an outright liar:

When these stories lost their effect, and his audience grew listless, he became desperate and would bid all the boys good-night, announcing that he was going to travel for a while, going to Naples, to Venice, to Egypt. Then, next Monday, he would slip back, conscious, and nervously smiling; his sister was ill, and he should have to defer his voyage until spring.

Fantasists can have huge moral shortcomings. An interesting portrait of a fantasist, played by Emily Blunt, is Tamsin in My Summer Of Love — a film which I felt from the beginning would fit nicely into Katherine Mansfield’s oeuvre.

Is Paul really gay? Willa Cather is thought to have been lesbian, and well-used to portraying a different persona in an era when same-sex love is illegal, let alone taboo. The dissonance between Paul’s reality and his illiberal environment are his main off-the-page psychological shortcoming.

Fictional Paul reminds me of real life Stephen Fry. While Paul is coded as ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ by some scholars, Stephen Fry was driven by bipolar disorder, as yet undiagnosed, when at the age of 17 he stole a credit card from a family friend, ran away from home and had a grand old time in Swindon. He was required to serve 3 months in a Pucklechurch prison.

Stephen Fry has published a letter to his 16-year-old self, which may as well be written to Willa Cather’s fictional Paul.


Have you noticed the gendered nature of fantasists in fiction? It’s far easier to come up with a list of female fantasists—from dreamy to dangerous—than to come up with male equivalents.

Willa Cather’s Paul may be an exception, gendered male, but Cather codes him as feminine and gay.

The idea of fantasist overlaps with our idea of ‘liar’, since fantasists are so often depicted as lying, either to themselves or to everyone else around them. There is a long history of women portrayed as liars, in fiction, in media, in pop culture. Fantasy is on the lying spectrum.

There is a ‘silence’ (and a hole in the market) for stories about masculine male characters who are fantasists.  Male fantasists certainly exist in real life, but we don’t tend to think of them as such. For instance, a male stalker fantasises about dominating a woman, controlling every aspect of her life. This type of man is nothing if not a fantasist. Yet in fiction we are rarely allowed inside his head. An exception would be Paul Spector in The Fall, in which we see the scribbled notebooks kept by a male serial killer.

Don Draper is another male fantasist, though his own invented backstory is depicted as accidental and purely pragmatic — we get no indication that Draper fantasises inside his own head about what it might have been like to enjoy a completely different childhood. Yet I suppose he must, because his entire job was about coming up with fantasies in order to sell products to consumers. Instead, Mad Men offers the character of Peggy as more of a classic fantasist. When Peggy goes to dinner with a potential suitor, boasts about her important Madison Avenue job and starts smoking—although she doesn’t normally smoke—she is shown up in a humiliating way as a complete phoney, and with fantasist overtones.

Ultimately, though, Paul is lonely. Main characters with the psychological shortcoming of ‘loneliness’ are very common in short stories. Some have even suggested the short story is all about loneliness, specifically:

“Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society…. As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.”
—Frank O’Connor


Paul is in love with Charley Edwards, or with the Romantic image of Charley Edwards. He wants to spend as much time as possible with this young man, but he must also keep it secret.

In case we mistake his intentions, Willa Cather tells us what Paul doesn’t want:

He had no desire to become an actor, any more than he had to become a musician. He felt no necessity to do any of these things; what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything.


Because if Paul’s father knew he was sneaking out to see Charley Edwards he would not approve. (We are told that the father has a gun. Is this Chekhov’s gun?)


Paul asks his father for money to ride the car — I guess this is what we’d call a train — to study with another boy when he’s really going to visit Charley at the theatre.

He has also secured a job as an usher, which gets him into that theatre world. His father approves because he think Paul should be earning a little money of his own.

In part two, which has its own 7 steps, the reader remains in audience inferior position as we learn after Paul arrives in New York that he’s done a Marion Crane and stolen money from his work, planning to escape at the weekend to start a new, more glamorous life. (In fact, Hitchcock re-used a trope employed by Willa Catha, not the other way round.)


This story is interesting because of what Willa Cather chose to dramatise and what she chose to summarise. Here she summarises a big struggle rather than dramatising it:

The upshot of the matter was, that the principal went to Paul’s father, and Paul was taken out of school and put to work. The manager at Carnegie Hall was told to get another usher in his stead, the doorkeeper at the theatre was warned not to admit him to the house, and Charley Edwards remorsefully promised the boy’s father not to see him again.

So that’s not the Battle, as such. The general writing rule is that the Battle must be dramatised. Otherwise the reader feels like the story has no ‘point’. We feel ripped off.

Battles don’t always look like fights and arguments, by the way. They quite often happen entirely inside a character’s head.

Like Mansfield does in “The Wind Blows“, the psychological Battle is preceded by a description of setting which heightens the atmosphere:

His head whirled as he stepped into the thronged corridor, and he sank back into one of the chairs against the wall to get his breath. The lights, the chatter, the perfumes, the bewildering medley of color—he had for a moment the feeling of not being able to stand it. But only for a moment; these were his own people, he told himself. He went slowly about the corridors, through the writing-rooms, smoking-rooms, reception-rooms, as though he were exploring the chambers of an enchanted palace, built and peopled for him alone.

In contrast, Mansfield manages to make a big struggle scene out of wind blowing plants by a quiet beach — Willa Cather has more to work with in this city environment.

At this point in “Paul’s Case” he crosses the boundary between ‘fantasist’ to ‘deluded’. He’s hallucinating now. His lies have become so habitual that he has fully convinced himself:

He doubted the reality of his past. Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street, a place where fagged-looking business men got on the early car; mere rivets in a machine, they seemed to Paul—sickening men, with combings of children’s hair always hanging to their coats, and the smell of cooking in their clothes.

Now the Battle is purely psychological. Once more, Cather cuts out the argument (or whatever happened) between Paul and his potential new buddy:

The young man offered to show Paul the night side of the town, and the two boys went out together after dinner, not returning to the hotel until seven o’clock the next morning. They had started out in the confiding warmth of a champagne friendship, but their parting in the elevator was singularly cool. The freshman pulled himself together to make his train and Paul went to bed.



When Paul runs out of money, he realises it’s money that is the difference between his ideal life and his middle-class reality and he has no idea how to go about getting that amount of money, partly because he’s in a discombobulated state.

His father was in New York; “stopping at some joint or other,” he told himself. The memory of successive summers on the front stoop fell upon him like a weight of black water. He had not a hundred dollars left; and he knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted. The thing was winding itself up; he had thought of that on his first glorious day in New York, and had even provided a way to snap the thread. It lay on his dressing-table now; he had got it out last night when he came blindly up from dinner, but the shiny metal hurt his eyes, and he disliked the looks of the thing.


Paul is dead.

How can setting be a character?

setting as character

When asked to write something about setting, for an essay or an exam, what exactly are we being asked to describe?

When I was in high school my English teachers advised us all against writing the exam essay on setting. So I did. But I wouldn’t advise the same thing. Setting essays provide plenty of opportunity for demonstrating knowledge and understanding of a work.

At about junior high school level, setting comprises two things: TIME and PLACE.

But a more sophisticated breakdown of the concept of setting involves different aspects to include:

  1. PERIOD — a story’s place in time. This can actually be broken down further into ‘author period‘ (the time when the author originally created or published the work, and ‘narrator period‘, which is the time when the narrator of a work supposedly narrates the story. (Reader period. Counterpoint this against when the reader reads the work, if this is useful.)
  2. DURATION — a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours. Some people call this the temporal setting.
  3. LOCATION — a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — towns, cities, parks. Manmade places tend to symbolise the conscious, tamed part of our minds.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGSforests (which usually border a town in fairytales) tend to represent the subconscious. Forests are especially interesting, but we also have rivers and mountains.
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — in a fantasy it might be a system of magic in lieu of technology. In speculative fiction this will be at the forefront. Even in non-SF work, the tech of the time is relevant to setting.
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.

If applied to Breaking Bad:

  1. PERIOD — The first season aired 2008, and the story is set in either that year or very close to that year.
  2. DURATION — Although the series has taken 6 years to watch due to the time it takes to produce a series, the duration of the story is 2 years.
  3. LOCATIONAlbuquerque, New Mexico; Mexico; in the homes of Walt, Jesse, Hank; in factories and small local businesses
  4. MANMADE SPACES — the houses, the factories, the high school, the streets, the hotel (depending on the episode, there are many)
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — the Albuquerque desert, which can also kill you if you’re not careful
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — equipment to produce methamphetamine, later in its purest form
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — At a time when teachers aren’t paid enough to support a family, when health care is unaffordable to those working in the caring professions, when methamphetamine use is causing criminal harm and much victimization

If applied to Courage the Cowardly Dog:

  1. PERIOD — The style of house, the dress of the characters suggest contemporary late 1990s.
  2. DURATION — Each episode seems to ‘reset’ back to the beginning as if nothing happened before and nothing was learned. As evidence, Courage is never, ever believed when he raises the alarm about intruders. If this was a story which built upon itself, you’d expect Muriel to take him seriously after a while, because he’s never wrong.
  3. LOCATION — The fiction town of ‘Nowhere’ represents any Midwest rural town in America — anywhere flat, where it’s possible to live miles from anyone else.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — the house, the retail outlets, the nearby factories and experimental labs.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — the Midwest plains
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Opponents bring their own technology to each episode and use whatever they’ve got to try and defeat Courage. Courage has only a PC at his disposal, which is anthropomorphised and talks to him. It doesn’t give Courage the information he wants. This represents an early form of search engines, and comments on to a time when people were just starting to use the Internet. The Internet was much smaller then, and results were much fewer.
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — Some have hypothesised that the setting of the farmhouse in Nowhere represents a dog’s experience rather than a real place — that Courage’s experiences are those of any dog who is housebound, not taken out for regular walks, and who sees every visitor as an opponent no matter their intention. The entire series could be considered a metaphor for what goes on inside a dog’s head, presented as understandable to human viewers, using familiar human tropes.

The cinema’s master storytellers give us the double-edged encounter we crave. First, the discovery of a world we do not know. No matter how intimate or epic, contemporary or historical, concrete or fantasized, the world of an eminent artist always strikes us as somewhat exotic or strange. Like an explorer parting forest leaves, we step wide-eyed into an untouched society, a cliche-free zone where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Second, once inside this alien world, we find ourselves. Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity. We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days. Story was written to foster films of archetypal power and beauty that will give the world this dual pleasure.

Robert McKee


When talking about places as characters in literature, the Latin term Genius loci is useful. In classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. If you ever come across a picture of a figure holding a bowl or a snake, that’s probably an ornament of the genius loci. (The plural is genii, by the way.) Light is important here. The genius loci is powered by the sun.

If you go to somewhere like Japan, or watch Japanese anime, you’ll see the Eastern equivalent, for example the butsudan in traditional Japanese homes. (A butsudan is a corner of a room where you put photos of dead loved ones and incense and food offerings.)

But in the West we mostly refer to ‘the spirit of the place’ rather than something that’s actively guarding.

The term used to refer specifically to gardens, but now can describe the spirit of any kind of place.


Then there’s the ultimate in sophisticated essays about setting. This is where you write about how setting is basically one of the characters.

What do people mean when they talk about setting as character?

To the list above, let’s add the following of any work:

  • Who else is there (apart from the main character)?
  • How are these characters interconnected?
  • What values do they share and disagree on?

Now to that fourth dimension: How is the setting a character in its own right? Let’s start with what makes a ‘character’.

Let’s address these specifically human attributes one by one, as applied — this time — to a setting.

How does a setting want something?

Unless you subscribe to an olde worlde religion where you believe spirits exist in the river, in the mountains, in the trees, you probably agree that a physical setting doesn’t want anything — it just is.

However, there are certain aspects of setting — such as weather events — which can take on the persona of a monstrous character. A tornado behaves like a horror villain in its ‘single-minded’ wish to follow its course, caring not for the havoc its wreaks upon those in its path.

Hollywood is fond of odd-couple films, so you’ll be familiar with stories in which two contrasting characters are stuck together to achieve some kind of goal. Lethal Weapon, The African Queen, and Rush Hour are stand-out examples of that genre. Sometimes you get an odd-couple film which doesn’t contrast two characters — instead, it contrasts a character with their setting. This is known as a fish-out-of-water story.  Beverly Hills Cop, City Slickers, Splash and so on.

When a setting is used to contrast a human character, the setting itself seems to take on human qualities, turning a story into a different take on the odd couple story. Hero against setting this time. People have a tendency to anthropomorphise, and sometimes it really does seem like nature itself is against you. In reality, the setting doesn’t ‘want’ anything, but when it rains six weekends in a row and you want to get out into the garden, it can seem like the weather has some sort of vendetta against you.

Writers can utilise the cognitive bias of anthropomorising natural events by juxtaposing the main character’s goals against natural events in the environment. Weather is a great one, but it might be a forest which characters can get lost in, or something much less dramatic, like a tall building which prevents an old man’s yard from getting any sun, thereby affecting his tomatoes.

How does a setting have a psychological shortcoming?

The only way a setting can have a psychological shortcoming is if we’re talking about the collective shortcoming of the people who are there — its visitors or inhabitants. For instance, the insularity of a community who is forced to accommodate strangers, or the lack of community of a big city which is later forced to band together to fight a common evil.

The concept of pathetic fallacy is crucial here.

If a setting is ‘gloomy’, that’s because the viewpoint character feels gloomy. Of course, in real life, a setting just is. If everything around you seems gloomy that’s because you’re seeing it that way. In fiction causality is presumed to work backwards — a character feels gloomy because the setting is gloomy. In earlier times in history, people really did think backwards in this way.

How does a setting have a moral shortcoming?

How does a setting treat ‘other’ characters badly? Your human characters can feel let down and abandoned by their home environment if they’ve dutifully tended to the land only to be faced with a drought which renders them unable to survive. In this way, farms can ‘betray’ farmers. Of course, it’s the farmers feeling this emotion. It’s entirely one-sided. That doesn’t matter in fiction.

How does a setting get caught up in a big struggle?

In a disaster story like Twister, the setting creates the big struggle. But it doesn’t have to seem ‘proactive’ — a desert just sits there minding its own business, but because a desert is inhospitable to human life, any human who tries to walk across desert sands is going to find themselves in a big struggle against the desert.

How does a setting have a anagnorisis?

Since this stage is inextricably linked to the ‘psychological shortcoming’ part of a story, the same holds true. A community of people can realise something at once, after some common big struggle. Or, maybe the community doesn’t realise anything, but the reader does.

How does a setting undergo a character arc?

To sum up, this portion of  Cheryl Klein’s newsletter explains what most people mean when they talk about ‘setting as character’:

I would love any tips on how to make the setting come alive. Seems sometimes the setting is like a character.

I’d say treat the setting like a character, and try to develop it the way you would a character. Some questions to contemplate:  What is the history of this place? Write out a timeline of it. What did it look like before any beings lived on/in it—its landscape, its climate? If it’s a human-made place (e.g. a house or a business or a town), who built it, and for what purpose, and why at that location? Who has occupied this place since, and how have they used it? If there were a “spirit of the place,” what would that spirit be like, and how would it have reacted to each of these occupants? Think of at least three specific details for each of its historical iterations:  the kind of flora and fauna that dwelled there, a game played there, the surnames of the families that lived there. Which of those details have survived into the present day of your story?



  1. Write about the people who live(d) there.
  2. Write about how the setting either props up or opposes humans who enter its territory.
  3. Personify the setting at a line level. (I write about the difference between personification and anthropomorphism in this post.)

Individual writers create their own regular tricks to evoke the feeling that a setting is alive.

Annie Proulx is a master at this. For example, Proulx doesn’t care if a verb is transitive or intransitive. She uses it as she sees fit. Below she describes a snowy, sleety, windy scene in which a family of men are about to go out hunting:

Something outside, the garbage can cover, hurled along, stuttering metal.

A Run of Bad Luck

Hurl is a transitive verb — it takes an object — but Proulx using it as an intransitive verb. This has the effect of making the environment sound like it is alive, and also like it’s antagonistic. I’d say the technique of manipulating standard grammar is related to personification, but not quite.


comic from Poorly Drawn Lines

If you’ve read Educated by Tara Westover, Matt Bird has a blog post about why (rather than how) Westover turns her mountain into a character.

For a different take on the exact same topic as this post see Person, Place or Thing?: Characterizing Setting by AYŞE PAPATYA BUCAK at Fiction Writers’ Review

The Earth Is Just As Alive As You Are from the New York Times

“The history of life on Earth is the history of life remaking Earth.”

A Meditation on Our Relationship to the Landscapes We Inhabit from the New York Times

“Lessard devotes much of the book to exploring what she terms America’s ‘atopia,’ our vast, seemingly unplanned, inchoate, exurban sprawl, which remains to her largely inscrutable and tragic. She writes about such places from what you might call an exalted literary remove. The mode is epistolary, poetic, occasionally honest to a fault.”

The way in which place interacts with human beings is one of the focal points in philosophy, so if you want to know more about that, philosophy is the place to go. For example, Heidegger coined the phrase Dasein to describe the state of ‘being-in-the-world’.


Buildings As Character In Fiction

Masks In Storytelling

Arthur Hughes - The Property Room

We love stories about tricksters who get away with stuff. But we don’t want them to get away with stuff forever. We want them to be found out.

For instance, when Emerson Moser retired from Crayola and revealed that he is colour blind, he made sure that this one little detail of his career would eclipse all others. I’m not sure if this is what he intended, but that is his Internet legacy.

Audiences love masks. More specifically, we love the slipping of the mask. Our love for the mask may explain the wide appeal of celebrity gossip:

I’ve come to realize that my main attraction to celebrity gossip comes from a fascination with slipping facades. I don’t care what celebrities eat for breakfast or what they buy at Whole Foods, but I like it when they lose their shit: the Britney Spears breakdown, Lindsay Lohan’s downward spiral, Paris Hilton going to jail, etc. I’m sure part of it is just base, ugly schadenfreude on my part, but there’s something else too. Their public images are so carefully micromanaged and manipulated and wrapped in Teflon, and there’s something exhilarating about seeing the mask slip once they stop giving a shit. 

Suzanne Riveca at The Short Form

When creating characters for fiction, storytellers sometimes draw a distinction between what Michael Hauge refers to as ‘identity’ (masks) and ‘essence’.

  • Identity refers to the faces people present to the world, also known as masks.
  • Essence is the (one) true self.

This distinction is more clear in some non-Western cultures, for example in Japan. Japanese culture draws a clear distinction between ‘omote’ and ‘ura’ (public face and private face). The words literally mean ‘front’ and ‘behind’.

We may not have widely understood words to describe this in English, but the distinction is clear in our history of storytelling. The underlying message of most stories is the same no matter the genre: It’s only when a mask (false identity) comes off that true happiness can be found.

(Interestingly, this is not how Japanese culture sees it. In Japan, the ‘omote’ face is a necessary ‘mask’ for a harmonious society.)

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.

Oscar Wilde

Genre And Masks

The Love Genre

This omote/ura distinction is important in the love genre. The audience is clued in about who is right for each other because even if the romantic pair start off fighting (fight fight, kiss kiss trope), they eventually get to know the other’s essence. All other romantic rivals never get past the ‘identity’ stage of knowing.


The transgression comedy is all about masks. A character tries to get away with something by posing as somebody else. The audience is in superior position, waiting with glee for the mask to come off. When it does, this big scene is full of comedy. We’ve been anticipating it, so it’s especially satisfying.

Tootsie is the tentpole example of a transgression comedy. A man dresses as a woman because he’s ruined his reputation in Hollywood and needs work. (If he dresses as a woman he assumes a whole new identity.)

A lot of The I.T. Crowd episodes are transgression comedy. Jen Barber is the biggest fraud, having secured the job as head of I.T. by bluffing. It is soon revealed that this is part of her character in general, to the last detail. In a later episode she buys shoes that are too small because she wants people to believe she has dainty little feet. Roy is a little duplicitous but not smart about it. Jen’s duplicitous nature contrasts with the personality of Moss, who says exactly what’s on his mind and takes everything literally.

In the “Kicking Up A Stink” episode of Kath and Kim, Sharon has found a job as a bootcamp leader, but the mask comes off when she invites Kim along. Kim isn’t one bit scared of her and walks off, prompting a mass exodus, ruining Sharon’s session.


Mask iconography – original source unknown

The transgression thriller — surprisingly, perhaps — has the same structure as a transgression comedy. It’s just the entire tone and plot details that are different.

By the way, the structure looks like this, courtesy of The Narrative Breakdown podcast:

Discontent – someone is unhappy about something

Transgression with a mask – peculiar to comedy and thrillers

Transgression without a mask – midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off

Dealing with consequences

Spiritual Crisis – happens in almost every story

Growth Without a Mask

Another name for the transgression thriller is ‘the wrong man thriller’. Hitchcock was a big fan. He would set up a falsely accused innocent. Over the course of the story the truth is revealed.

Examples Of Wrong Man Thrillers:

Horror Stories

It is said that horror stories exist to define what is normal by showing us what isn’t. There’s a long tradition of horror monsters who act because ‘the devil made them do it’. Equally lazy but more modern: The horror monster is ‘psychotic’.

The horror genre is beginning to move more solidly into a phase where the audience discovers the ‘true identity’ of the monster and finds that in fact we are looking at the darkest parts of ourselves. This is widely known as The Shadow In The Hero.

A stand-out example of a vampire horror story is “The Mask” by Richard Marsh, which appeared in Marvels and Mysteries in 1900. A homicidal madwoman adept in the art of mask-making transforms herself into a raving beauty and threatens to suck the blood of the hero. 

W. T. Benda, Cover of LIFE, March 8, 1923

Types Of Masks In Storytelling

Actual Masks

Masks are used in all cultures around the world, especially in rituals and ceremonies. Masks play an important social function.

The masks used in ancient Greek theatre are based on the culture of the ancient Dionysian cult. Thespis was the first writer to use a mask in stage writing. Members of the chorus wore masks to distinguish them from the main actors. There was a good logistical reason for this: The same actors were able to play a variety of roles in the same play. Also, the actors were men. Masks allowed them to play women, starting a tradition which is still utilised today (problematically).

Another logistical reason for stage masks: A bland-featured mask utilised over and over again distracts from the individual character and forces the audience to focus on that character’s actions.

Posing As Someone You’re Not

These characters are based on the ancient trickster archetype.

Behaviours include:
  • Bluffing to secure social or economic advantage (Jen Barber in The IT Crowd).
  • Dressing in disguise to get away with a crime (the pigeon in the pilot episode of We Bare Bears)
  • Acting as someone with a different personality (Nom Nom the YouTube sensation Koala in We Bare Bears acts loveable but is actually evil.)

Walter White makes out he’s a nerdy, science teacher type (which works because he was), when in fact he’s the local drug lord.

The 2003 movie Thirteen by Catherine Hardwicke is a coming-of-age drama about two girls who pretend to be what they’re not. The structure involves the coming off of a mask. For much of the movie Tracy Freeland is acting as a pseudo-adult, ditching her mother who she still needs very much in favour of a girl who has not been so well protected from the world. How does Hardwicke wrap up this story? It’s a story chock full of conflict — arguments with Tracy’s mother, father, brother, teacher and former best friends. Therefore the ‘big struggle sequence’ needs something extra. In this case it’s the coming off of the mask. After rejection from Tracy’s mother, Evie Zamora outs Tracy to everyone as a thief, self-harmer, drug abuser and all-round evil person. While this portrait of her is not quite right either, it is in this scene that Tracy’s mother finally gets the full picture regarding what’s been going on with her daughter. The mask is finally off. In the outtake scene we see Tracy on a roundabout (a regression to childhood), emitting a primal scream. The torment of keeping up this facade of rebel has passed.

American Beauty involves two big masks: The teenage beauty who pretends sexual experience to disguise her complete inexperience, and the military neighbour with internalised homophobia. This contrasts with Kevin Spacey’s character, who takes off his mask at the beginning of the film and lives as his true, lazy, hedonistic self.

In some ways, Office Space is the comedy version of American Beauty. After hypnosis gone wrong, the hedonistic, don’t-give-a-damn side of Peter Gibbons is left. Comedy comes from the fact that this works to his advantage. Peter is now seen to have ‘leadership qualities’. Nerdy office workers pretend to be money launderers, knowing nothing at all about money laundering. This is a film with masks at every level — even the guy selling homeless magazines door-to-door is a well-spoken college student.

In both American Beauty and in Office Space, the double-identity characters are set up in contrast with people living as their true selves. Peter Gibbons meets a waitress who is so true to herself that she quits her horrible waitressing job by giving her boss the  middle finger over an argument about not showing enough ‘flair’. Joanna is literally  unable to pretend to be who she is not. Joanna in turn contrasts with her hyper-enthusiastic (but fake) boss. Michael Bolton is another character unable to fake anything with conviction, which is why it’s so funny to watch him try to pretend (in an important job interview) that he likes the singer Michael Bolton. Another character living his true life is Peter’s redneck labourer neighbour, whose basic urges make him crass but also relatable. Office Space has a happy ending because every character is living life as their true selves, ditching fake identities. American Beauty is a tragedy because characters are punished for their false presentations. In both films the message is identical: Faking who you are cannot possibly lead to happiness.


In the “Hello Nails!” episode of Kath and Kim, Kim gives Sharon a makeover. In a comedy, a makeover is a sure sign that the story will have the structure of transgression comedy.

Makeovers in non-comedies are often supposed to ‘reveal’ one’s true attractiveness, matching the attractive personality underneath. This is a fairytale view of humanity — that ideally, good people should look beautiful otherwise there’s an uncomfortable dissonance.

In comedies the real self is the unadorned version, which is why things don’t work out when the awkward, gawky Sharon Strezlecki tries to dress elegantly.

Cross dressing

There is one type of mask often used in comedy, and it is used in almost every major children’s film. At some point a male character dresses as a female character to achieve some goal.

I feel Tootsie becomes more problematic as time goes on, with transgender feminists pointing out for us the downsides of equating feminine presentation with duplicity. In Tootsie, at least, Dustin Hoffman’s character dresses as Dorothy not with the main intention of exploiting femininity by bewitching men with fake feminine wiles, but in order to apply for jobs otherwise not open to him, and to disguise his own well-known male identity.

But in many stories for children, the male characters dressing as femme characters are using a mask of femininity to get away with behaviours which are manipulative in a sexualised way. A terrible example of that is the Australian middle grade book The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey. Yet this is a very popular book and few question its ideology.

This storyline is highly problematic. The message is that femininity equals duplicity >> women are manipulative liars >> “Lock her up”.

I’ve said more about that here: Liars in Storytelling.

Masked Settings

The lovely setting later revealed to be hiding misery and crime is the setting equivalent of peeling a mask off a person. The masked setting is known as a snail under the leaf setting.

This is why mystery stories often work well thematically in tranquil little towns. The crime peels back the mask of civility to reveal the more troubling reality beneath the surface.

See also: How Can Setting Be A Character?

Guillaume Seignac - Pierrot’s Embrace 1900
Guillaume Seignac – Pierrot’s Embrace 1900

Are Western Storytellers Correct?

A few years ago I read a book called The People You Are by Rita Carter, which presents quite a different thesis of human behaviour.

Carter’s main argument is that there is no ‘one true self’. She argues that humans have the ability to change according to circumstance, and that we are rewarded for doing so. We are one way with our colleagues, another way with our families, and neither one of these ‘people’ takes precedence over the other.

The dominant idea in modern storytelling contrasts with this psychological view. No matter the genre, we are told time and again that that there is ’one true self’. This version of the self must make its way to the surface and be somehow ‘exposed’ before happiness can be found.

This view of human nature may age contemporary stories in the way that ‘one true love’ romance stories now seem old-fashioned to us, in the era of serial monogamy. Some pushback on that:

My problem is that people always say ‘don’t be afraid to just be yourself!’ and like…it’s not that I’m afraid, I just don’t know how to do that? Because I want to get super jacked and tattooed and never wear make-up and have plaid shirts and shave off my hair, and I also want to wear pretty dresses and high heels and learn how to do eyeliner properly and grow my hair out real long, and I want to be intimidating and confident and Speak My Mind and Take No Shit but I also want to be soft and kind and for people to think I’m cute, and I want to be seen as smart and well-read and respected but I also want to be seen as down to earth and approachable and fun…and I have no idea which if any of those people are actually ‘myself’ or if they’re all just a variety of exciting disguises.

Blog of Impossible Things

Since culture prioritises the view of the personality as a ‘singlet’ (hence the popularity of astrology, as explained in Carter’s book), readers generally have little time for a fictional character who does one thing in one context, then seems to be completely different in another. Multiple selves in a single character may be one of those things which doesn’t work too well in fiction even if it would reflect real life. Certainly, if not written well, the reader may blame the author for failing to create an authentic and consistent personality, even though none of us is one hundred percent consistent in real life.

I believe moving past this idea of ‘one true self’, which includes all stories in which someone ‘finds’ their ‘true self’ needs a bit more pushback. It might be closely related to moving past the gender binary, and has particular impact on those who live in a more gender expansive manner, which is hopefully all of us.


Twins, arch-nemeses, imagined selves, ‘Sliding Doors plots‘… all of these are used in fiction to convey the idea of multiple selves without actually writing multiple selves.

Header painting: Arthur Hughes – The Property Room