First, what is context?
My good friend, Merriam-Webster says it's "the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning."
Blah, blah, blah, what?
On a basic level, this means that context is the sentence before or after a given piece of information. For example, suppose I said "I ate the little boy." Sounds kind of gruesome, doesn't it?
But if I give you some context (i.e. the sentence before), the whole meaning can change: "We made a pancake family for dinner. I ate the little boy."
Relieved to know I'm not cannibal? Me, too.
And while this is fascinating stuff, Merriam-Webster also gave a second definition that is especially important to authors: "the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs : environment, setting"
Environment. Setting. Sound familiar? It's what drives every character's reaction to every event in your book. And when we ignore Context, or simply fail to consider it, we have credibility issues.
I personally learn from examples better than explanations, so here we go.
1. Let's suppose we are writing an historical fiction that takes place in the 1500's.
Our mc is a 16-year-old young woman. Of course, we all want a strong female lead, so she gives her hair pink streaks, and secretly sneaks out at night to burn corsets and rails against her father (and every other male she meets) about the repression of women and how she should be allowed to become a Blacksmith if she darned well pleases.
You see the problem? This character is not believable. She is shouting ideals of a time period well-beyond hers, and participating in activities that were probably never thought of back then.
Now, make this into a fantasy or dystopian . . . in other words, change the Context . . . and you're on your way to some great world building. Context changes everything.
2. Let's make this one a contemporary chapter book.
Ummm . . . yeah. See the problem? In the context of this character, this is not something he would do. It just isn't.
Now, create a circumstance that gives a new context for that action, and you might have some interesting tension and inner turmoil going on. But without that, you will lose your reader if your character doesn't act within his own context.
3. Finally, we have a MG fairy-tale retelling.
Our mc is the 37-year-old wood-cutter from Little Red Riding Hood. The book explores the graphic details of his murderous past before he faces his own mortality and the mercy he receives from a little old lady. In a display of symbolic irony, he redeems himself by slaying the beast who ravages that little old lady and her dear grand-daughter, Little Red Riding Hood.
Now could this be a good book? Absolutely! But given the context of our audience (Middle Grade), this book misses the mark. No middle grade editor is going to read past the description. It is simply isn't Middle Grade. Make it adult fiction, and you might have something.
Context helps define our characters as well as the setting. It outlines plausible events, and keeps us focused on our audience and genre.
Now, I am definitely not saying that you can't mix things up a bit. But if you choose to ignore a context that you, as the author, have previously established, you risk breaking a trust with your reader.
Have you ever stopped reading a book because of context issues?