Context in Fiction: Using the Past to Create the Present

Our friends, G. and S., came to visit last night. At one time, this would have been such a simple statement to make; on the surface it might have even seemed banal. These days, though, the ordinary fact of a visit carries with it a significance only available if one knows the context. Sometime in early or mid-March was the last time Cathy and I had seen G. and S. in person. We’d made the trip to their house for an excellent dinner and stimulating conversation. Little did we know it’d be over six months before we’d be able to return the favor. The State of Ohio was on the verge of a stay-at-home order due to the COVID pandemic. We could feel it out there on the horizon, and like most things having to do with this pandemic we felt our way through it, unable to predict how long that order might last and what it might do to our regular way of life and for how long.

Spring passed, and then summer, and the death count continued to rise. So much of our regular come-and-go has been changed, perhaps irrevocably. Last night, G. and S. and Cathy and I mimed virtual hugs at a distance on our patio. Twice previously, we’d had a conversation from our individual little boxes on Zoom. When the wind picked up last night, G. pointed out that if there were any COVID molecules, they were being blown away from us. Such was the context of our gathering. Such were the facts that make the statement, “Our friends, G. and S. came to visit last night” resonate with the history around it.

If I could invoke the power of the fiction writer and make the facts of the pandemic go away, I most certainly would. Alas, real life resists the bend of the imagination. The facts are the facts, and I can’t change them. Context in fiction is everything, and yet we often forget to think about what our characters are carrying with them through the central action of the narrative. Often, it’s what they carry with them that creates the action. A man whose wife has recently died reacts differently when a woman speaks to him in the supermarket than does a man who’s just closed the biggest business deal of his life. This is a simple example meant to illustrate a simple opposition; in good fiction, things usually aren’t that clearly oppositional but rather a blend of complicated, and often contradictory emotions. The sadness of the first man and the glee of the second is meant to make clear that our characters always have histories and we do them a disservice when we fail to use the pressures of the past when we dramatize the central events of the dramatic present.

Here, then, are three questions we can ask ourselves about our characters:


  1. What has happened in a character’s past that they can’t forget? Perhaps it haunts them, or maybe it simply mystifies them. Maybe it’s a regret, or maybe it’s a feeling of shame or guilt over something done or not done.


  1. On a smaller, more local level, what has happened immediately prior to the opening of the story that influences the action? You can also apply this question to each scene. What has happened in the preceding scene that comes to bear on the one that follows? As this point, you should be in the midst of a causal chain with each event leading to the next.


  1. What world events, either past or present, influence the choices the character makes? If we fully consider specific time periods, we’ll have a better idea of why our characters do and say what they do. My father, for instance, was a child of the Great Depression. When I was a boy, he’d snap at me if I left a light on in a room I was leaving. “You think money grows on trees?” he’d say. At the time, of course, I had no idea that his insistence on saving money came from the want he’d suffered during that difficult time in our country’s history.


William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And so it is when we come to the page to tell stories even if one of them is the story of two friends coming to visit after a long absence. Nothing particularly dramatic happened during our time with G. and S. last night, nothing that would make the story noteworthy—only the context in the form of the events of the past, carried forward now into the present. Our characters are rarely constructions built only from the here-and-now. We’re wise to consider the lives they’ve lived prior to the narrative beginning—that and the particular worlds they’ve occupied and continue to occupy. Everything from the past and the present comes to bear on the paths our characters create.



  1. Lorraine Comanor on September 28, 2020 at 9:36 pm

    I remember well my father waking me at 2
    AM because I left a light on downstairs. When you asked me to include him in the essay we were working on, that incident came to mind. We who were raised by parents who lived through the Depression have different habits, only a few of which have been passed on to the next generation.

    • Lee Martin on September 29, 2020 at 11:35 am

      Thanks for sharing that detail from your childhood. The reach of the previous generations is indeed sometimes long.

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