Before you can tell a character’s story, you have to understand how context creates that particular kind of individual with the specific power to influence the world they inhabit, and thus drive narrative.
Take a look at the list below, then try to identify the novel it describes:
- Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions
- Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love
- With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules
- She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is
- An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society
- They have one daughter together
- The end of a pregnancy almost kills her
- Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand
- Influential people in their social circle turn their backs on them
- She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side
- Others pay a heavy price for their choices
- His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love
- In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices
Now, with a few tweaks on the details this could describe just about any romance novel out there. But this isn’t just any novel out there.
In fact, it’s not even just one novel, it’s two very distinct narratives, one occupying the literary end of the spectrum, the other genre.
How can this be? How can a single, very specific summary fit two totally unique novels?
And get away with it.
And produce two masterpieces.
If you haven’t already guessed, the two novels are Anna Karenina and Gone With The Wind.
How did this happen and still work?
Every single detail of both novels bears specific and perfect working agency for each particular narrative. Agency is a kind of inherent power to influence, in this case in a fictional context.
So how does context work in fiction? Say you took the same narrative summary and superimposed it into Hollywood circa, oh, just now. How would those summary details muscle through?
For laughs, let’s call our fake novel Anna Kardashian and take on context point by point.
- Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions: … so, um … going against Hollywood’s conventions would take our Anna into the realm of .. morals? and sexual decency? Okkaay, sssure.
- Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love: Let’s call him Brhatt Pittsky. He’s an amoral/immoral frat boy she meets at a kegger. Brhatt’s been with some whores in the past but he doesn’t really need them because he can always find girls willing to do the same things for free, so he saves a ton of money that way. To complicate things, one of the girls he uses for booty calls loves him and might/might not already have a child with him. Brhatt’s sole objective is to take Anna’s virginity even though she’s in love with a narcissistic rapper, Kanyley Welkes, who she thinks is totally fabs because of his pseudo-religious prosperity rap message. Unfortunately, although Kanyley is hot for Anna, he doesn’t really love her and wants to marry his cousin to keep it in the family. Brhatt goes after Anna with everything he’s got.
- With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules: Ooh, this is getting sticky already. So Brhatt does everything possible to get Anna to let her guard down, showing up at parties and getting friends to manipulate contact until she responds to his intense pressure. He super wants to video himself taking her virginity and gets her alone unchaperoned one night and convinces her that anything that feels so goooood has to be approved by God. When he goes to tape it, he accidentally presses the wrong button on his smartphone and instead of taking a video he ends up with a very blurry nightvision image of his butt crack.
- She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is: Her motto is: WTF? LOL!
- An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society: she goes clubbing and, unlike everyone else, is not taking obscene selfies of public sex acts, nor snorting mountains of coke. Once their social circle finds out she’s a virgin, from then on that’s all anyone posts about on FB. Brhatt’s friends make up some pretty funny memes about it too, using Photoshop to superimpose Pepe the Frog’s face over hers to show how virgins have to be ugly to be virgins. None of the memes go viral, though.
- They have one daughter together: Of course, she gets pregnant her first time, and of course he denies he’s the babydaddy and demands a paternity test. And of course because the Bible says once you fornicate with someone you’re bonded to them for life, she realises she loves him and dedicates herself 100% to the relationship.
- The end of a pregnancy almost kills her: When her latest pics of the nursery and her mason jar crafts on Pinterest do not go viral she can’t deal and goes on clonazepam. Guys, it was super, super hard.
- Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand: Because they’ve already fornicated, she moves in with him figuring it’s as good as marriage in God’s eyes. She tries to withhold sex so she doesn’t feel bad about herself for continuing to fornicate but he pressures her to do gross stuff that makes her puke and also causes such severe sphincteral atrophy that she needs rectal surgery to prevent excrement from continuously leaking out, but at least it’s not technically fornication. Her frigidity drives him to shag (that’s what the cool kids are calling it these days, right?) his booty-call buddy more regularly, and Anna starts getting paranoid about how much Brhatt truly loves her.
- Influential people in their social circle refuse to receive them: Obvs! She smells like feces all the time. His rapey frat-boy friends hate her guts more because she thinks they’re a bad influence and won’t let them in the house, thus preventing them from gang-raping her for a rape-fantasy porno they want to post to PornHub.
- She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side: A mousy sister-in-law whose only interest is children and housekeeping. She doesn’t actually so much as stand by her side as just not get all judgey.
- Others pay a heavy price for their choices: Her friends say she makes them feel bad and guilty and shameful about all their out-of-wedlock pregnancies with different babydaddies and the drug use, and they wish she would stop being so high and mighty. And also do something about the rectal leakage. His friends are sick of them both for getting in the way of their viral-porn careers.
- His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love: After trying for too long to undermine her morals and get her to finally do that porno his friends think they can sell on PornHub, he finally does rape her in earnest, then sends pics out in an act of revenge porn. She finally realises that even though they’ve fornicated God will forgive her if she breaks up with him. Probably. But then in an epic turnaround Brhatt realises he likes Anna a little. It makes him sad, but not really.
- In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices: she requires years of therapy and corrective rectal surgery but otherwise just coasts along, eventually getting ultra-religious and distributing L. Ron Hubbard tracts for Scientology. He never finds fame and fortune with his revenge porn which, buried in an ocean of horrific, galling sexual imagery, never, sadly, goes viral. He blames her for his failure. She spends the rest of her life and her family’s fortune hiring lawyers to get the revenge porn images off the net but even after years and decades somehow they always manage to surface. The guy she’s living with, though, is super, super supportive and so sweet. LOL!
Yeah, pretty much the same, no?
The worlds from which Tolstoy and Mitchell drew not only created their particular heroines and all the bit players, those worlds made it possible to drive powerful narrative through context. The characters have agency because the contexts have agency and thus provide it to them.
In a Hollywood context – morally, spiritually, politically, economically – Anna Kardashian could not have been created in a way that might have driven her to Anna Karenina’s particular end. Hollywood has no moral or spiritual or social power to realistically or even hypocritically control, ostracize, and destroy one of their own over an extramarital affair and having a child out of wedlock, or for a defiant need for autonomy when that’s the accepted norm. This strips away the agency of any possible suicide, as well as its power as an end. Oh, Anna Kardashian might still have committed suicide but not with the same causal agency derived from the institutional pressures that snuffed out Anna Karenina’s freedom to choose as a human being and as a woman. Her world had her completely boxed in to an impossible corner, out of which suicide was the only truly autonomous choice she had left, and the only freedom. That’s not within the realm of Anna Kardashian’s story at all, and couldn’t be.
You could try working the morality/sexual decency angle against the business-as-usual moral degeneracy of LaLa Land but a socialite with money in today’s Hollywood has more power to turn away from that influence than anyone else in this life. She is not trapped anywhere by anyone, even if her parents or a trust controls the purse strings. If she finds degeneracy too overwhelming she can find belonging and a moral home elsewhere. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, kept ignorant and uneducated by her society, was powerless to survive alone without her husband’s or her lover’s wealth, nor the isolation of a social world that rejected her absolutely.
Now, make her a Muslim woman in ISIL-controlled Mosul or Saudi Arabia and we can start talking about the power social, economic, and cultural conditions have to control a woman’s autonomy when that woman isn’t even allowed to set foot in the street without a related male chaperone, nor drive a car, nor hold her own passport.
Not in Hollywood, though.
Similarly, the contrast between the decadent antebellum South and the Civil War’s brutality (as well as its devastating economic and social effects) create then drive Scarlett and all the others in the story toward their outcomes. Just as the combination of her low Irish and aristocratic coastal French lineages provide her with the “gumption” that allows her to both understand and navigate her rarified world then survive when it falls, the inbred Southern aristocracy of Ashley and Melanie makes it impossible for them to survive on their own when their world is stripped of its beauty and grace. Rhett, too, as a reject of that world, becomes detached from its value and autonomously survives on his own terms, allowing him to manipulate Scarlett into doing the same except with consequences he doesn’t foresee (because she is not entirely like him, and he is not as entirely unlike his world).
Not even the LA Riots visited the total destruction of a way of life represented in GWTW to provide a modern equivalent of Mitchell’s complex statement about character and survival.
It’s the conflicted pressures of those contexts that propel Anna to her final scene. The antebellum/post-Civil-War South contexts created Scarlett O’Hara, and for the same reasons Anna is driven toward her suicidal end, context makes that same ending for Scarlett impossible.
In fact, in great fiction the opening lines and scene become the absolute nexus point of all those contexts, out of which the story runs like a torrent on its own power.
Take context away and the only power a story has left is plot and writing style, and those are almost never enough to carry a narrative without leaving the reader feeling like they just ate a meal that was mostly carbs and empty calories.
Why is context so important? Because it’s the way life works, and the best stories tell us the most about ourselves and our world in the best possible ways. Every single experience we have, our history, our culture and social/familial conditions create the context from which our very being arises. And because they create us, they create the directions in which we’re pushed and pulled, and they create within us the agency (or lack of it) to either react from basic animal instinct or respond as conscious beings to whatever happens to us.
Get context wrong or ignore it, and you signal to readers that you don’t understand much about life or people, or that you’re a simple-minded fool.
Take a look at how context has worked in your life and in the lives of the people you know. How are you giving your stories the contextual substance necessary for the kind of agency and self-propelling momentum that can get readers truly engaged with your story?