Monday, June 10, 2013

Keeping it in Context

After last week's post, I couldn't get the idea of "Context" out of my head. It's not something I've thought about consciously as I write, yet it's kind of important.

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.

Our mc is a 5-year-old boy who loves frogs and dirt. He loves worms and bugs, and catches grasshoppers for fun, but he always lets them go. He looks at spiders through magnifying glasses, makes match-box beds for pill bugs, and hosts a sit-in protest when his mom tries to spray an anthill in her flowerbed. Then one day, he sees a garden snake and takes his mom's hoe and hacks it to death.

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?


Stina said...

Love your examples, Janet. :D

I can't say I have stopped reading a book because of context issues. Maybe it's because I haven't found such book, or the issue didn't jump out at me because I was tired. Hmmm.

Old Kitty said...

I don't think I've stumbled across any reading where I'd see a character do something out of context without explanation - well not yet anyway! I guess if I did I'd just scratch my head and think I've missed something!

Take care

Andrea said...

Such great examples and ideas to consider!

MikeS said...

Well, I didn't necessarily stop reading, but I thought Katniss Everdeen was one huge out of context character in the Hunger Games. She seems very intelligent at times, but is manipulated so easily. She seems very caring for others, as long as it is her little sister, and so heartless for others, demanding to know what's in it for her before she'll help overthrow the government.

Unknown said...

I can't think of a specific book I've stopped reading because of context issues, but I agree that context is critically important to a story. Your examples were good, too. And now I want to know why the boy hacked up the snake.

Margo Berendsen said...

I like the medieval girl with pink hair - in a fantasy setting. :)