What’s the easiest way to find your story’s theme—and make it stick? Although any discussion of theme is multi-faceted, one of the best ways to approach this complex topic is through the realization that you can use theme to create character arc—and vice versa.
When asked to explain what a particular story is about, some people may respond with a plot answer: “It’s about the end of the world.”
Others may even respond with a theme answer: “It’s about whether it’s morally acceptable to save a few at the cost of the many.”
But implicit within either answer is character.
Indeed, the third possible answer is, of course, straight-up about the characters: “It’s about astronauts.”
The end of the world and its incumbent moral quandaries are hardly interesting unless people are involved. (Or at least anthropomorphic entities. Watership Down, after all, is an extremely engaging apocalypse.)
Identifying Your Story’s Text, Context, and Subtext
So am I saying story is really character? ‘Cause a couple weeks ago, I said story is really theme. So… what gives?
If theme is a story’s soul and plot is its mind, then character is its heart. Character is always and ever the life force of story. But what is life without meaning? Even in stories that wish to posit the meaning of life is there is no meaning, that’s still a meaning. That’s still a theme.
The bottom line is you can’t have a proper story without people (characters) doing stuff (plot)—the very highlighting of which inevitably comments upon reality (theme).
Together, this trinity of storytelling mutually generates the text, context, and subtext.
The outer conflict, represented by plot, exists on the story’s exterior and most visual level. This is the text.
The inner conflict, represented by character arc, exists on the story’s interior level. This is the context. It provides the first layer of commentary on the plot’s events. When viewed through the differing context of different characters’ inner struggles, a plot’s text can take on many different meanings.
Finally, the story’s theme nestles in the center of the Venn. It may never be seen; it may never be explicitly spoken of or referenced. But even silent, it creates the subtext. Depending on how the other two elements are presented, this subtext may either cohesively support or ironically juxtapose the story’s text and context.
In short, it would seem the character’s personal relationship with the plot events is what creates the thematic subtext. This is 100% true. But if viewed from another vantage, it becomes clear that an aware author can also shape the story in the opposite direction by consciously using theme to create character arc.
5 Steps to Use Theme to Create Character Arc
Effective character arcs are inherently related to thematic presentation. This means all discussions of character arc are really discussions of theme. Character arc is, in itself, a deep and complex subject, which I’ve explored in many other posts and, of course, my book Creating Character Arcs (and its companion workbook). For the sake of expediency, today’s post assumes a basic understanding of character-arc principles, but if you want more info, check out the preceding links.
Today, I want to talk specifically about how theme creates character arc and/or character arc creates theme (depending which end the author tugs first). I’m necessarily talking about each of these aspects in partial isolation. Two weeks ago, we talked about how to identify your thematic premise; next week, we’ll talk about manifesting theme in the outer conflict of your story’s plot. But don’t forget that each is part of the larger symbiosis.
None of these three elements—theme, character, and plot—are created in isolation. Instead, the author must employ what I call the “bob and weave.” If you have a notion about what you want your theme to be, you might start by investigating how that could play out in the plot, which might prompt you to start developing suitable characters, which might bring you back to questions of plot—and on and on, back and forth, back and forth. For every little bit you develop theme, you must develop character and plot apace.
So how can you use theme to create character arc? And how can you use your character’s arc to help you identify and solidify your theme? Following is a five-part checklist that will help you identify the thematic pieces already at play and then use them to generate further ideas that will harmonize your story into a single unified idea.
1. The Thematic Premise’s Explicit Argument
As we talked about in this post, the essence of your theme will be summed up in its thematic premise. There are many ways, this premise might be expressed—everything from a single word to a fully-realized sentence. When using the thematic premise to develop character arc, the central tenet you’re most interested in is its argument.
Implicit within even the most amoral thematic premise will be a central question. That question is going to produce the heart of your protagonist’s character arc. This is the question that will drive his quest throughout the story. The answer may end up being explicit (as with Dorothy Gale’s “there’s no place like home”), or it may be deeply implicit (as we talked about previously with The Great Escape‘s “the human spirit is indomitable”). Either way, the search for this answer will define your protagonist’s inner conflict.
- In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the thematic premise’s argument might be turned into the question: “What determines the worth of a life?”
- In Charles Portis’s True Grit, the thematic premise’s argument might be turned into the question: “Is justice a personal responsibility?”
- In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, the thematic premise’s argument might be turned into the question: “Does defense of one’s family justify all means?”
2. Inner Conflict, Pt. 1: Lie vs. Truth
A story’s theme is a posited Truth about life. This Truth may be inherently moral (“what does it mean to be a good person?”), or it may be existential (“what is life all about?”). Either way, the story will indicate that a certain Truth is, indeed, true.
Necessarily, where there is a proposed Truth, there must also be opposing un-truths—or Lies. And how does a story explore these Truths and Lies? Not, your readers sincerely hope, through lengthy, sermon-y exposition, in which they are told what’s what and what’s not. Rather, readers want to be shown. They want to see your proposed Truth acted out in a realistic simulation. Whether the proposed Truth can hold up under stressful reality will be “proven” (or disproven) by how well that Truth and its opposing Lies serve your character over the course of the story.
Your story’s outer conflict will deal with outer antagonists—people and situations that throw up obstacles between the protagonist and the larger story goal. The inner conflict, however, is ultimately a battleground of the mind, heart, and soul.
No matter what type of arc you’re using (Positive Change, Flat, or Negative Change), the story’s central Truth will be the crucial piece needed for the characters to achieve positive ends within their quests. If they resolve their inner conflicts by embracing the Truth, the outer conflict will follow suit. If they cling to the Lie and prove unable to embrace the Truth, their external pursuits will end in, at best, hollow victories.
- In A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge overcomes his Lie that “the worth of a life is measured in money” and embraces the Truth that “the worth of a life is measured in charity and goodwill.”
- In True Grit, Mattie Ross’s steadfast Truth that “a careless attitude about justice will create social anarchy” creates measurable change in the world and characters around her.
- In The Godfather, Michael Corleone ends by embracing the Lie that “corruption and violence are a justified means to an end.”
3. Inner Conflict, Pt. 2: Want vs. Need
If we climb up another rung on the story ladder from Abstract Theme toward Concrete Plot, we find the next level in your character arc’s development. The story’s central inner conflict between Lie/Truth will translate directly into the character’s Want/Need.
The Lie is rooted in or is the catalyst for one of the character’s central Wants. In Change Arcs, this Lie-driven Want will probably directly influence the character’s plot goal. In a Flat Arc, the protagonist will already believe in the story’s Truth, but will have to contend with the Wants of other characters whose adherence to the central Lie will create external obstacles.
At its broadest, the Need is always the Truth. What any Lie-believing character Needs is the Truth. But, like the Want, the Need will often translate into a literal object, person, or state within the external plot.
- In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge Wants to “make as much money as possible.” What he Needs is the love of his fellow human beings.
- In True Grit, Mattie’s Want of “bringing her father’s killer to justice” is in alignment with the Need of the world around her, but is obstructed by the moral apathy of the lawmen she hires to help her.
- In The Godfather, Michael Wants to protect his criminal family. What he Needs is to leave the life of crime behind him.
4. Inner Conflict Becoming Outer Conflict
Your character’s inner conflict cannot exist in a vacuum. The inner conflict must be caused by and, in turn, must cause the outer conflict. This is a direct development of the Want/Need. In order to bring all of the Big Three—theme, character, and plot—into alignment, the Lie/Truth must be expressed as the Want/Need.
Depending on the nature of your story and the type of arc you’ve chosen for your characters, they will likely be forced to choose between what they Want and what they Need. This will be the externalized metaphor that proves the corresponding choice between the theme’s Lie and Truth. Readers will never need to be hit over the head with a “moral of the story” when they can be shown a character’s wrenching choice between two concrete objects, people, or states of being.
This decision should never come easily. If the posited “right” choice is obviously better than the “wrong” choice, the thematic argument will lack teeth. If the right choice is easy, why should the character need to experience any inner conflict at all? This is why the argument between Lie and Truth must truly be an argument. If a Truth that posits “murderers are evil” is opposed by the simplistic Lie that “murderers are good”—there is no argument. But if the Lie is complex enough to allow the author to explore why, for instance, a defense lawyer might truly believe her psychopathic client deserves not to be punished—then suddenly, you have an interesting premise that can be played out in the external conflict with extremely high stakes.
- In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge must choose between facing the monumental weight of his wasted life or going to his grave unperturbed.
- In True Grit, Mattie must choose between pursuing her father’s killer and her own safety.
- In The Godfather, Michael must choose between living a righteous life or protecting his family by any means.
5. Change Within the Character, Change Within the Plot
The surest way to check whether your theme is in harmony with your characters (and, therefore, your plot) is to hone in on what changes within your story. How are the characters—particularly the protagonist—different at the end of the story from how they were at the beginning? If there are no changes, then the storyform will be fundamentally problematic.
Another problem may arise when the character changes, but not in alignment with the thematic premise. This is a sign of a disconnect at some point in the story. Even if you’ve attempted to paste a different theme over the top, what your story is really about is always rooted in the change that occurs in your characters and their world.
When we see theme fully integrated with other story elements, that theme will always be an active force, either working change upon the protagonist or worked by him upon other characters.
- In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge changes from a miser in the story’s beginning to a repentant, joyous, and charitable man in the end.
- In True Grit, Mattie has wrought change upon the world around her, bringing an end to her father’s murderer and the outlaw gang he ran with, as well as inspiring actions in the complacent and self-serving lives of the lawmen she encountered on her journey.
- In The Godfather, Michael changes from an clean-cut young war hero with a legitimate career to a ruthless mafia don.
When theme is a message imposed upon a story, the result often feels disconnected or even heavy-handed. But when the author works with the theme via the characters, the story’s Truth will arise beautifully and powerfully as part of an organic whole. Try it out!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever tried to use theme to create character arcs—or vice versa? Tell me in the comments!
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