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Character Context

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Know How Your Character Fits In Your Story

There are as many character background questionnaires, forms, and lists as writers. Some use 3-ring binders with tabs for each character. Some create files in MSWord or Google Docs.And Writing software like Scrivener and StoryShop have formatted character sections to develop character background from basic information to character interview questions. 

A novel is a long work of fiction and characters appear at various stages in the story. A character background helps you remember a character as a quick reference that appeared earlier, say 50 pages ago. You may have forgotten if the scar is on the right or left cheek or if the character had blue or brown eyes. 

A character background serves as a behavior reference as well, from speech patterns and repetitive habits to personality traits like shyness or aggression. These traits help you keep a character’s behavior consistent.

But the one thing you need to know for each character, the one thing you can’t forget, is how that character fits in your story.

What is Character Context?

Context is how the character fits in the story. The character serves a role in moving the story forward. Context works in two ways: 

  • How the character relates to each of the other characters 
  • How they fit in the framework of the story 

Knowing each character’s context from the beginning will help you avoid some common character story malfunctions. Character context makes your story cohesive from start to finish. 

Interpersonal Relationships and Connections

How a character reacts to other characters reveals their personality. When they pat someone on the back or avoid them on the street, you give your reader clues about the relationship. For example, if your main character speaks kindly to their neighbor in person and then gossips viciously behind their back, it tells readers something about their trustworthiness.

List any relationships like: familial (uncle, parent, child, etc.), work connections, friends, and enemies. Know who supports them and who doesn’t. Use these details in dialogue and action to reveal your characters to your reader.

Character Story Role

Context keeps you from having two or even three characters with the same story function. Streamlining the story function to one character reduces reader confusion. A reader won’t stop and wonder Wait, I thought Jim was the one who sneaked out in the middle of the night. You want your reader to keep reading.

Traditional mystery writers have a special challenge because a mystery contains several suspects but only one villain, the character that killed the victim. If your sleuth is torn between two love interests in a subplot, keep those two as separate entities. And, a character can have more than one role, a love interest may also be a suspect. 

Character Context Keeps Your Story True

Knowing a character has red hair is less important than how that character works in your story. You can change a shy girl to an aggressive girl and she may still have the same story role. As long as you know the context of a character you can play with traits and aspects, but their function in the story remains the same.

Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

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