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.