Characters in Context

When I’m first coming up with a story idea I often come up with the basic premise and the setting first, then the characters. Some writers have a character first, but I can’t really get my head around that, because I don’t know how a character can exist in an abstract way like that. For me characters need a context.

What do I mean by the context for a character?

The setting of the story is a big part of the context. One of the ways I develop a character once I’ve got that premise and setting is by asking who is going to do something really interesting in this situation. Who is going to be the one making the choices? Who is playing for the highest stakes? Once I start that then I have to see how they fit into this setting and into the situation that’s occurring in the story.

So where do they fit in this setting? What is their role? A king has a different context in the same setting than a peasant. Are they in a privileged role or a downtrodden one? How do other people treat them? Men and women may have different contexts in the same setting based on the role they play in that society and how other people treat them.

The other people in the story provide a context to the character too. Whether that’s wider society, or individuals they interact with. Are those individuals treating them the way they are used to be being treated, or in a different way, and how is the character responding to that?

But context isn’t only about the current setting. It’s also about where the character was earlier. Where did they grow up? That setting will have formed their ideas and attitudes. How did they fit there? Characters carry that context with them through the rest of their life. If the current setting is different than where they grew up then how do they come into conflict with it? Do they want to be there? Have they moved from a setting where they had power and privilege to one where they have neither? Like a once powerful noble in exile. Or have they come and made their fortune and moved to power and privilege from a humble start? That will make them different to those born to wealth and power. And maybe bring them into conflict – old money versus new money.

Even if they actively and deliberately reject the context of their past it’s always an influence on them. It will always inform how they are interacting with their current context.


  • Context is setting and culture.
  • It’s not only about where the character is now, it’s about where they were before.
  • What’s their role in their context?
  • How well do they fit?
  • One thought on “Characters in Context

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