Context in Fiction

Context is everything. It seems like a simple concept, but as I have explained elsewhere, and I repeatedly tell my music history students (both classical and jazz), the idea of historical context can be a tricky thing for us in the twenty-first century. And I’ve come to realise recently that this also applies to the world of fiction as much as it does to history.

In the history classes that I’ve taught I’ve attempted to get students to see that listening with twenty-first century ears and minds doesn’t help you understand how people may have listened in the 1700s to opera or in the early twentieth century to jazz- you need to understand the function and the culture of the place and time. You can also say this about fiction. I’ve noticed recently that there is a trend towards literalism in watching/reading fiction- using twenty-first century ideas and taboos and placing them onto works of fiction that have no bearing on reality or our ideas of the modern world. I find this problematic because by reading/watching in this way audiences are not paying attention to the context of the author’s (or authors) world building. It’s an interesting dichotomy that people generally love the notion of world building and are enthusiastic about it in their reviews (witness all of the behind the scenes featurettes for ‘Game of Thrones’), but a very large part of that world building are the cultures and traditions for that world. It’s not that audiences ignore this part, but rather that when they are confronted with something that doesn’t gel with their twenty-first century mind-set they will reject it outright.

I’ll take an example from a book called ‘Street Magic’ from the quartet ‘The Circle Opens’ by Tamora Pierce. Pierce utilises point of view narration to tell most of her stories so you’re seeing the action from the view of her chosen character narrator (which in this book shifts between three main characters). Now the main protagonist the young plant mage Briar Moss meets a street child Evvy who has stone magic and when we see Evvy through Briar’s eyes she is described as having ‘almond shaped eyes’. Further into the narrative Evvy is revealed to have come from a country called Yanjing. These two clues together are supposed to point out that Evvy comes from a quasi-Asiatic-analogue country. However, the description of Evvy’s eyes has recently come under fire because it’s seen as bad to describe people (particularly minorities) by using food. While doing that can be a symptom of fetishization and lazy writing, sometimes there is also the context of the world the author has built (and the characters therein) and not reading with twenty-first century ideas to be taken into account.

Pierce has built a world that is quasi-medieval (as in people use horses for transport, there’s no electricity, plumbing, etc.- but they have magic) based around Mediterranean, North African, and a variety of Eastern cultures (later in the series northern European cultures are also introduced). However, while there are clear analogues to our geographical and cultural world they are mixed in sometimes quite surprising ways. By our standards the world Pierce has created is both modern and old-fashioned, and the standards of behaviour for the characters reflect this mix and the cultures and social classes that they have come from. For the reader this can be confusing because we can be lulled into a false sense that it really is like our world and our current standards of behaviour should apply…and then they don’t and they audience is confronted with something that they may not agree with. However, I believe this is where the reader should take off their modern blinkers and examine the world that has been created, the standards of behaviour, the cultures and classes, without reference to our modern world. You cannot hold a fictional world to the standards of the ‘real’ world because it takes away that author’s very hard work in creating a world that is different from our own (that is after all the whole point of fiction, particularly fantasy)- even if you find an action repugnant think about what it means in the context of that fictional world, how the character(s) react, and what they narrative is trying to say.

For my example in the context of the ‘Circle Opens’ world- where the main protagonist Briar Moss is in that world (in a place called Chammur, whose culture is a cross between India and some Middle Eastern cultures), the age of Moss (14- and while fairly mature, he has a raft of prejudices that you’d expect from an adolescent boy, especially around girls), and the fact that until we meet Evvy Yanjing has just been a name with very few cultural signifiers attached- and I might add that Briar doesn’t know until later that Evvy is from Yanjing- it makes more sense that Briar would actually note that Evvy had ‘almond shaped’ eyes. For Pierce this would be a quick short hand way to let the reader know that Evvy comes from an ‘Eastern’ culture, because let’s face it every reader would know what that meant (and I should note that this books is aimed at 10-15 year olds, though many adults enjoy it too), and this would fit with Briar’s characterisation as a plant mage (he frequently thinks about things in relation to plants and vice versa) and former street kid to whom food remains subconsciously important.

Although this is a small example, I believe that the context of the author’s world really does need to be taken into account when reading- and the more complex the world the more it needs to be considered (I’m looking at you ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Wheel of Time’, and ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’!), because the author has created entire cultures and societies that frequently have little or no bearing on our own. Although it is possible to read and enjoy fictional worlds without considering the context of that world, there are going to be times when as a reader you’ll be confronted with something that you disagree with, sometimes violently, and that’s fine, but before rejecting a work because you disagree with, or find the events repugnant take a mental step back, think about what it means in the context of that world, not your own. Think about what the author wants you to feel, which might be that they want you to feel repulsed and confronted, but you might not find out why unless you keep reading (or in the case of a TV series, keep watching). Finally considering the context of the world that you’re reading about might just make it more interesting to you.

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