Frame of Reference

It was one of the first sunny Sundays of spring, so I headed up to the roof of my building with my favorite “go to the roof” kit: something to read (on my Kindle), something to listen to (music and/or podcasts on my phone), a note pad, a pen, and my sunset snack basket with a glass of wine, olives, nuts & a little cheese.

In the elevator on my way up to the top/eighth floor of my building, I ran into one of my neighbors. She glanced at my basket and asked:

“Are you doing facials?”

“Facials? I’m going up to the roof to relax with a glass of wine.”

“Oh, that’s a nice idea. I saw the basket and thought you were doing facials.”

In her frame of reference, the basket was filled with beauty treatments. Judging from her unnaturally smooth skin and puffy lips, she spends a great deal of time, money and effort chasing beauty. It’s an important part of her life and it colors the way she views the world.

I got up to the roof and found another neighbor and told her the story. She said that, “Life was a Rorschach Test” and that we all see different things, based on our lives and how we look at what we see.

I looked at the shadows of lattice-work & leaves with pleasure, acknowledging that someone else might see the dirt on the white wall and not the pretty shadows.

When creating a character in fiction, I’ve found that it’s important to have an idea about his or her ‘frame of reference’ and when I lose sight of this, the character is in danger of running away from me.

What is important to this character? How do they view the world around them? With whom do they want to spend time? These are important questions and they can be helpful in developing a credible world view for a character in any genre of fiction—from the most realistic to the most fantastic.

My sunset snack basket.

My sunset snack basket.


  1. I like the idea of a frame of reference. It adds insight, which is always good, but as a reader I’ve found I can empathize more with a character if we share some part of a frame of reference. Doesn’t have to be all, just something.
    I guess that’s pretty much the basis of most friendships too,

    • Candy Korman

      Ah yes… the reader identifying with the character… It’s helpful and sometimes it is necessary, but in mystery fiction it can be tricky. Will readers identify with the serial killer? What about the down-on-his-luck, alcoholic detective? Or the self-destructive anti-hero? If there is something appealing about them, something intriguing and attractive in their make-up, then yes… the reader will identify with that characteristic.

      I think you are onto something very important when you say that empathy comes when there’s an element in the frame of reference that’s familiar! You don’t have the same world view as the character, just share something that hooks you into their perspective on the world. Sharing a perspective—or some common interest—is the genesis of most friendships in real life. In fiction, it draws the reader to the character.

      The protagonist in the novel-in-progress is an art history major in college, she sees everything in relation to art. A rakish smile will make her think of a portrait of a Spanish courtier, the buffet at a fancy party will bring Dutch still life paintings to mind… I’m hoping that readers unfamiliar with art history on her level of interest will identify with her pleasure in seeing the world filled with art. Fingers are crossed that her frame of reference resonates!