Continuing my series of posts on character exploration and development: 
Placing your characters into their own unique social contexts–the external life circumstances your people have lived through and are currently involved in—is essential.   By doing so, you’ll start seriously to dig into their lives and begin asking some critical questions about the forces that have shaped them and that continue to influence how they think and act.  Every person has a definite set of social circumstances that has helped define who he or she is.  I suggest you need to have a pretty good idea of what these are for each of your people.
For starters, make some choices about each character’s own blood family circumstances.  There are a whole set of crucial questions you need to think about:
Who are the parents? 
Are they still living? 
Are they still married to each other? 
Were they ever married? 
What kind of relationship do (or did) they have? 
What does (or did) each of the parents do for a living? 
What kind of relationship did your character have with his or her father when growing up? 
With the mother? 
What kind of relationship does he or she have with each of them now? 
Are there brothers and sisters? 
How many? 
Where does he or she fall chronologically among the siblings? 
What kind of relationship did he or she have with each of them while growing up? 
What kind of relationship does he or she have with each of them now? 
Are there any close relatives that have had an important influence on your character? 
Was it a happy family during your character’s growing up years? 
Was it dysfunctional? 
If so, how and to what extent? 
What emotional scars does the character carry from his or her past family experience?
And if your characters are functioning adults in the real world, you also have to take a look at the family they’ve created for themselves:
Is he or she married or committed to someone? 
If so, is this the first such relationship? 
What kind of relationship is it? 
Are there any children? 
How many? 
What kind of relationship does he or she have with each of them? 
If not married, has he or she ever been? 
If divorced, how has that experience affected him or her? 
Is there a romantic or intimate relationship with someone now (at the start of your story)? 
How serious is it?  If not, has there been one or more in the past? 
Are there any close, intimate friends? 
How important a role do these friend relationships play in his or her life?
        Notice that the repeating question centers on the relationships your characters have had or are currently involved in.  As obvious as this is, it’s worth stressing that this is a major key to understanding who your people are and why they do the things they do. People spend their lives interacting with other people and being influenced by them, especially those close to them. They’ve all made their mark. 
And my contention is that if you ever hope to create living, breathing characters that start to jump off the page, you stand a better chance of accomplishing it if you’ve given this kind of exploration some serious thought upfront.
     Next:  Your characters’ place in community