Setting + Costumes = Stronger Characters

In theater, setting and costumes help the audience visualize the characters. There’s an art to choosing the perfect furniture piece or costume color. People who are good at dressing a show get paid a lot.

Writers can use the same stage tricks of setting and costuming to help readers “see” a character as well. In this passage from MOTHER OF PEARL graciously shared by debut author Kellie Coates Gilbert, notice how she “dressed” this scene with carefully chosen descriptions of the office and the wardrobe of lawyer Madeline Crane. She decorated the office set with sweeping draperies and a white couch instead of wood blinds and leather. She dressed Madeline in pink ruffles and a flowing skirt instead of a stiff gray suit. Setting and costuming combine to create a soft, feminine three-dimensional character in a hard, male world. Read this excerpt and see what you think … better yet, buy the book and learn:

Although it seems much longer, it’s only been less than a half hour since I’d parked and wandered through the front doors of Crane Law Offices, a small building tucked nearly out of sight on the banks of the Boise River.

You can tell the office belongs to a woman. The waiting area looks like something out of a Georgian mansion, with its sweeping draperies and claw-footed furnishings. Not exactly my taste, and certainly a departure from what you see in most law offices.

I stand and wander to the wall opposite the windows. Ornate frames in various sizes encase press releases and newspaper clippings. Letting my eyes wander, I examine a news article with the headline: Wrongful Death Lawsuit Nets Record Damage Award. I remember then, seeing a news segment featuring a bereaved couple who’d told how no amount of money could recompense them for the loss of their baby. Prescription error, if I recall correctly.

“Ms. Crane can see you now.”

The receptionist’s voice startles me. I thank her, gather my jacket and purse, then follow the gray-haired woman down a hall lined with ornate frames. The internet research I’d done was right on. Michael Warren might be a winning coach, but this lady has quarterbacked more than a few victories herself.

Madeline Crane looks very little like the photo on her website. I recognize the attractive blonde woman, but she’s considerably more petite than depicted in the snapshots. Unlike what I picture in my head when I imagine a strong-minded successful woman attorney, the lady in front of me wears a flowing black skirt topped with a ruffled light pink blouse and stiletto heels decorated with tiny bows. Frankly, this forty-something gal looks like she just stepped off the set of a Designing Women episode.

As soon as we’re introduced, she extends her hand. Her shake is surprisingly firm.

“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Ms. Crane.”

“Please, call me Maddy.” She leads me to a white sofa against the opposite wall, sitting next to me like we’d been lifelong friends. “Alice, get us some tea, would you dear? Oh, and some of those little chocolate éclairs I brought back from Seattle.”

Author Kellie Coates Gilbert

A former legal investigator and trial paralegal, Kellie Coates Gilbert writes with a sympathetic, intimate knowledge of how people react under pressure.  Her stories are about messy lives, and eternal hope.

Kellie’s upcoming novel, MOTHER OF PEARL, Abingdon Press Sept 2012, tells the emotionally compelling story of a high school counselor who discovers her own teenage daughter had an inappropriate relationship with the football coach . . . and how she risks everything to bring him to justice.

For more information, go to

About lynnegentry

Wife. Mother. Writer. Acting Coach. Director of Dallas International Performing Arts Academy.
This entry was posted in Characterization, Costuming, Setting, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Setting + Costumes = Stronger Characters

  1. Jane Thornton says:

    Great observation, Lynne, and great writing, Kellie! This character really became real instead of the stereotype.

  2. Julie Marx says:

    I can picture everything. Thanks for the reminders, Lynne. Love the petite lawyer profile.

  3. Julie Garmon says:

    Finished Mother of Pearl earlier this week! I ADORED Maddy Crane. She’d be exactly the kind of attorney I’d want. Incredible story! Loved, loved the courtroom drama. Kellie’s characters jumped from the page into my heart!

  4. Lynne Gentry says:

    Gilbert shines in the courtroom, no doubt.

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