When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.
An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. When his daughter was almost two years old, she died without warning in her sleep. This book is the story of what happened afterward. You can read the first two chapters of the book at Hart’s website.
How the Memoir Works
Throughout the book, Hart show the reader key moments from his daughter’s life and death, his and his wife’s grief, and their attempts to know how to live without their daughter. Many of these moments are associated with art: a book that Hart read to his daughter and films, songs, and poems that have meant something to him—consciously or not. Anyone who has experienced intense grief understands this kind of association, the way, for example, that a song can gain meaning when it’s heard at a particular time or during a particular moment.
The challenge in a book is to make the reader understand and feel these associations. A good place to start is the beginning. Make the art, religion, or words of wisdom part of the character’s frame of reference before the story really begins. In Rosalie Lightning, Hart makes the frame of reference literally the first thing we encounter.
Here is how the book begins:
Her favorite image
In a single night the oak tree grows to full height from a scattering of acorns in the garden.
In the next frame, we see a house with oak trees and learn the source of this magical image:
A scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro
What follows is a series of images of Hart’s daughter Rosalie picking up acorns and calling them “dideo atune” or “Totoro acorn” and also her death and its aftermath. Hart quotes his wife Leela saying, “My heart is a blast sight.”
This introduction is important because it presents both the tragedy and the mental framework that it enters. As Hart and his wife try to make sense of their loss, they fall back on that framework. Hart clearly shows us their attempts to make sense. For example, there is this scene early in the book:
I look for help in art and images. Wondering what makes them work. Wondering what’s going on in my brain…
I read Roland Barthes
“The relation between thing signified and imagine signifying an analogical representation is not ‘arbitrary’ as it is in language…”
He is writing about an ad for Italian spaghetti.
What it signifies, what it semiotizes, and how the layers of semiconscious signations and intents correlate with the
Forget it—I pick up the vault of horror
Obviously, Roland Barthes is not to everyone’s reading taste. What matters is that Barthes matters to Hart and that Hart looks to Barthes’ words to help understand his grief. In Barthes matters to the story because his words fail. Hart eventually turns away from them. In some ways, the book repeats this sequence: Hart seeks out a book, film, poem, or song, and he finds something helps or he doesn’t. Sometimes the art arrives in his life unexpectedly—arrivals that are possible only because the memoir has created space for them.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s give a character a frame of reference, using Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart as a model:
- Give the character a general frame. In short, what kind of person is your character, generally? Hart reads Roland Barthes and the poet Ben Lerner (who is quoted in an epigraph to the book), watches films by Miyazaki and Kurosawa, and reads the work of cartoonists and graphic novelists. He’s not watching Transformers or reading Tuesdays with Morrie (at least not in the book). Make a list of the sort of books and films your character prefers. If the character is religious, what texts does she turn to? Be specific. If the character is a Christian, don’t say she turns to the Bible. Identify the books in the Bible or passages that she recalls. What stories does the character like to tell? Does she tend toward patriotic myth, like the story of George Washington and the apple tree? Toward the mystical, like the various stories that pop up on Facebook about people holding hands and praying around a lake and, in so doing, altering the chemical structure of the water molecules?
- Figure out why the character turns to the frame of reference. In Hart’s case, his daughter died, and he was trying to make sense of the personal devastation that remained. Tragedy often forces people to question the meaning and essence of things, and so they turn toward prayer or art. But a story doesn’t need tragedy to do this. Case in point: whoever won the Powerball last week has experienced something good and life-changing. That person will almost certainly fall back on their frame of reference in order to understand how to be rich and what to do with the money. Anything that significantly alters or redirects a character’s life will likely force them to develop a new or revised or refreshed understanding of the world and situation they find themselves in.
- Find the applicable parts of the frame of reference. Hart no doubt watches many films and reads many books, but in the wake of his daughter’s death, it was particular films and books that he recalled and sought out. Return to the general frame of reference that you created. Which parts apply to your character’s situation? Some parts may be easy to identify. For example, certain Bible passages are read at funerals and weddings over and over again. Other parts may be idiosyncratic. Not many people might think of Roland Barthes when grieving, but Hart did, and that fact reveals something particular about him. So, find the particular films, books, stories, passages, and words of wisdom that your character would turn to.
- Introduce the frame before the story. In Rosalie Lightning, we see acorns and Miyazaki before we’re introduced to Rosalie’s death. Consider when/how your character might think about or talk about the film or book. When would she talk about it? Often there are objects that, when seen or encountered, prompt us to think about certain things. Or when someone we know has experienced a particular situation, we tend to tell the same stories as comfort. Try putting your character in one of those situations before introducing the major conflict. Don’t worry about the situation’s proximity in time to the conflict. Prose, unlike film, has all time and memory at its disposal. Hart begins with acorns. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald began with this sentence: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” That’s the frame of reference that Nick Carraway carries with him when he meets Gatsby. It’s important to begin with the frame because if it appears only after the conflict, it can seem artificial, like something introduced to induce some emotional response in the reader. If it’s introduced before the conflict, then it seems simply like part of the character.
The goal is to give a character the chance to make sense of the world, and that sense-making cannot happen in a vacuum. The character needs some frame of reference, which is what you’re providing.