Strout uses storytelling elements to build up a varied and nuanced portrait of Olive Kitteridge that shows that she is a complicated but ultimately sympathetic person. Strout does this through a series of vignettes that tell the story of Olive's adult life in a small Maine town and show her both as she sees herself and as others see her.
Strout often uses contrasting stories to show both the positive and negative aspects of Olive's character. We find out, for example, from her son's dialogue with her after he is married that he resents her for frightening and striking him as a child, which contrasts with her own perception of herself as a loving parent who cared deeply about her only child. And then, in contrast to the son's tale of Olive as overbearing and destructive towards him, we witness the vignette in which she talks a former student down from suicide. Olive, we see, can rise to certain occasions with wisdom and grace, but at the same time, her pain can make her behave in childish and petty ways, as when she is so upset at losing her son to marriage that she steals one of his new wife's shoes.
Through a series of stories that cover different parts of her life and are told from different points of view, Strout creates a layered and deeply felt sense of Olive as a flawed but fully human character.