Framing your characters

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”

“The frame is as important as the picture”

You’ve all heard things like this, but have you actually stopped to think about what they mean? Don’t worry if you haven’t: human nature keeps things like this comfortably in the background until you get smacked with them. If you haven’t been smacked, lucky you.

When we look at things – whatever those things might be – we’re not just neutral observers. We’re actively filtering through our frame of reference, which is usually the personal thumbnail of “stuff like this I’ve been through before”. Moving to another country, even one with a very similar culture, puts you in a situation where your frame of reference can lead you astray – or worse. Of course, as an author you can have a whole lot of fun moving your character into a place or situation where their frame isn’t going to help them. Dave’s Slow Train to Arcturus does this brilliantly.

Then there’s the flip side: how we as authors present things to our readers. The way we frame events in a book has an impact on the way the book is received. As an example, ConVent and ConSensual have some extremely gruesome murders which I deliberately play for laughs. Partly I do this because the books are mostly humorous, so a more horror-ish portrayal would be jarring and probably throw readers completely out of the story. Even a “flat” portrayal would likely be problematic.

Another example of this is a whole lot of Terry Pratchett’s writing. Under the humor there are a lot of themes explored, some of them chilling when you start to think about them a bit (the Cunning Man in I Shall Wear Midnight comes to mind). Without the humor people would probably reject large chunks of the books, and the Tiffany Aching books would likely not be classified as Young Adult. With it, the “medicine” goes down a whole lot more easily. Call it the spoonful of sugar.

In a different genre, the Overlord games do the same thing. Without the humor, those games would probably have been rated off the charts – you’re playing the evil character, slaughtering innocents (and sheepies), in Overlord there are bodies strewn around wherever you go, and your assistants are quite clearly demonic. Add humor, and it’s all good clean (if slightly perverse) fun. Well, not fun for the sheepies, but your minions love it.

This kind of framing is why you can give two authors the same outline and get two totally different stories. Each author will filter the outline through their experience, then they’ll frame it in a way that speaks to them.

6 thoughts on “Framing your characters

  1. I don’t need to frame my character. She really did kill the bast- oh, wait …

    This is one of the elements I really need to work at. I seem to get some remarkable characters with very little effort (in fact, they frequently just wander in uninvited and grab a seat, as though my head were some sort of pub), and can frequently attach them to some sort of plot without too much of astruggle. But finding the right “take” on presenting them can involve a LOT of false starts and trial-and-error.

    1. Stephen,

      Of course she did. But are we supposed to sympathize with her or want her dead? And yes, finding the best way to present the SOBs kibitzing in your head is an… interesting exercise

    2. I’m so glad someone else’s head works like mine. I also sometimes find that someone is halfway through telling me a story, in my head, and I haven’t noticed because I’m working on something else, and then I have to say “I’m sorry. You said?” For instance, Lucius from AFGM. And he very patiently backed up and started again…

  2. Some themes just can’t be dealt with other than with humor. And it’s often the grimmest themes. One of Mark Twain’s funniest essays was about frontier newspaper editors who kill each other. Darned if I can remember the title. He was trying to describe a real situation in a way people would actually read; this was a period when Ambrose Bierce got in countless pistol duels when he was an editor.

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