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Approaching a Theme: Writing from your Character’s Moral Framework

May 27, 2011

Last week, in linking to an article about the running theme of Pixar’s movies, I mentioned that I wanted to return to the subject of Theme in writing

Now, I’m no expert.  By which I mean: I have not, as yet, published a novel. That’s a correctable shortcoming, and one that will eventually be corrected.  In the meantime, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of Theme in my writing.  But because I’m no expert, I want first to point you toward the thoughts of someone who might reasonably be called an expert; in that regard, get thee to this post on the Magical Words blog on the subject of Theme.  When finished, you may return here, where I will wax further on the topic.

Okay, done with Lucienne Diver‘s article, now?  Good.  Now, let’s talk about Theme.  You might be asking yourself, “Well, what is Theme?”.  You might.  Then again, if you’ve been writing for a few years by now you probably aren’t asking that question, but I’m going to answer it anyway.  Theme is what your story is about.  I don’t mean about as in the characters your story is about or the plot your story is about.  I mean the ideas your story is about.  It’s hard to pin down when you’re just talking about it, but easier to point out when you have examples.  Since this whole thing began by linking to an article about theme in Pixar movies, I’ll turn to Pixar to help illustrate the point.

“Toy Story” is about friendship, about jealousy and about coming to know yourself.

“Finding Nemo” is about being a parent, about letting go and about growing up.

 “The Incredibles” is about family, about fitting it, about being different and about accepting ourselves for who we are and embracing what makes us great.

“Up” is about growing old, about regret, about love, about never being too old or too young for adventure and about friendship.

“WALL-E” is about environmentalism, about human complacency, about overcoming our baser instincts to rise above and embrace our humanity and connect with nature, about love and about work.

And so on. 

Part of what makes these movies so powerful for audiences is that they are so consciously about something. They have a point, larger message embedded in their narrative.

But although they have a message, they don’t spend an hour-and-a-half moralizing at you.  They don’t inundate you with dull and monotonic soliloquies.  They don’t stop the story to offer you a Saturday Afternoon Special “And now, the moral of today’s story is…”  Rather, they tell a story, and the theme emerges organically from that story.

Some writers will argue that it’s not important to think about the Theme of your story.  They will argue that if you think about it too much, you’ll end up doing those bad things I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the kind of moralizing that stops a story dead in its tracks.  And that’s a legitimate criticism of the idea of thinking about your Theme.  But as Lucienne’s post points out, there are dangers to not thinking about Theme.  Theme gives your story direction and impetus, and you need direction and impetus.  If you don’t think about  your Themes they may get repetitive.  But I’d like to add these dangers:  If you don’t actively think about your Theme, you may find that the emergent Theme of your story is one that is actually contradictory to what you’d want to say on the subject.  And if you don’t actively think about your Theme, you may find that your presentation of that Theme is one-sided and boring. 

The fact is, writers and authors who think consciously about their Theme are, generally, going to create a work that is more satisfying to read or experience than those of writers who do not.  Virtually all of the best works of fiction, the most enduring, have clear central Themes.  And having a Theme helps tell a better, more focused story.

If you’re going to think about Theme before committing story to paper, there are some techniques that you’ll need in your toolbelt if you’re going to avoid the pitfalls.  To understand these techniques, you need to understand the most basic, most important motor of the story: your characters.

Because Theme is not an emergent property of the story.  Rather, Theme is an emergent property of the characters. 

Think of it this way: human beings are complex, multi-dimensional creatures.  So, too, should your characters be.  And complex, multi-dimensional characters have beliefs, morals, ideals that they hold central to their being.  Consider yourself: what do you believe is important?  What ideas occupy your mind?  Why are those things important to you and how do you express that?  Not everyone will think deeply about these things for themselves – not every character will be conscious of the beliefs, morals, and ideals that drive them.  But they are there, nonetheless.  You’ll also find that different, otherwise reasonable human beings will have different beliefs, morals and ideals.  And they’ll look at the same set of facts and come to different conclusions, in part because of their different points-of-view.  Some will disregard the facts, others will see patterns that aren’t there, others will try to make sense of it in a meaningful way.  Characters in your story should be just as varied and just as multi-faceted.

If you want to approach your Theme in a way that is not overly paternalistic, moralizing, or one-dimensional, this is the technique you’re going to have to bring to bear: examine the issues and questions you are exploring in your work through the multiple prisms of your different characters. 

A few months ago, David Wolverton/Farland wrote a “Daily Kick” e-mail titled “Story as Argument” in which he discussed this concept.  He likened a story to an argument between different points-of-view on a particular subject.  He said:

Great stories explore ideas. They help us see the world more clearly, and they expose us to new possibilities.

…The only way to overcome intellectual flatness is to thoroughly examine the theme.

… Here is basically what I want to say about the “argument” form of storytelling: First, it’s just one way to approach storytelling. Maybe you’re not the kind of author who is interested in examining ideas and looking at them from a number of different directions. Maybe you feel it’s wrong to reduce your characters, in effect, to mouthpieces for each side of an argument. You might be more interested in exploring the feelings of young lovers, or reveling in an imaginary setting. Those things are fine, too.

…Early on as a writer, I was introduced to the ideas of the “protagonist and the antagonist,” the idea that every story has two major characters who are placed in opposition. They typically want the same thing: perhaps they are fighting for the control of a kingdom, or the love of a good woman.

These terms have been around for two thousand years, but I realized soon that the story wasn’t that simple. There were other characters involved, characters that your subconscious dredges up and thrusts upon you. These characters often take on different roles—the wizard, the trickster, the faithful guard, the heroine, and so on.

Joseph Campbell of course spent decades studying these characters and their roles, and you can see what he learned about them by reading “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Campbell’s theory is that these characters or types of characters exist in the mind as “archetypes”…

He then goes on to describe how a person might argue with himself, internally, about the best course of action – and dredge up reasons and counter-reasons to act one way or another. 

…The central conflict in every story, the deepest and most personal INTERNAL conflicts, take place as a character begins acting in an unfamiliar way, is forced toward a course of action that rouses confused feelings. The protagonist must continually answer the question, “Will I be the hero, or will I be the villain?”

This same conflict is going on, internally, in all your characters.  Each one, not just your primary protagonist and antagonist, is deciding for him or herself “Will I be the hero, or will I be the villain?”  And the actions each one takes, ultimately, will be the actions they believe a Hero would take.  In each character’s mind, they are the Hero of their own story.

If you explore the points-of-view of your various characters – heroes and villains, sidekicks and henchmen, antagonist, protagonist, anti-hero, foil, romantic interest, guide, fool – you’ll find a deeper, richer, and more compelling “argument” taking shape, and you’ll find you’ve created a more satisfying exploration of your Theme(s). 

And, somewhere along the way, your protagonist will change.  Their point-of-view will mature, their ideas will evolve, their beliefs will be tested, and they’ll come to a better understanding of who they are and why they do what they do.  That’s what makes them the hero.  Conversely, the antagonist either refuses the opportunity to change (cementing their role as Villain), or comes around and embraces change and some degree of redemption (becoming an anti-hero). 

What do you think about Theme?  Do you actively think about the Theme of your works before writing?  How do you approach Theme?  Do you worry about moralizing?  Share your thoughts.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2011 6:33 pm

    I do think about theme, and I do worry about moralizing. Moralizing is one thing I want to avoid, but some of the themes in my head are not easy to navigate (race relations, morality, free will & destiny, gender expectations). I think I avoid moralizing by not proposing one solution as superior, and attempt to show contrasting viewpoints. I want to explore the implications of the issues, but not come to conclusions. I don’t know if I succeeded in this balance, but I suppose that’s where a beta read might come in handy. *nudge nudge* hehe

    I’m a fan of Ursula Le Guin’s short stories. They often play fearlessly with a central theme.

    • May 27, 2011 8:55 pm

      I’m waiting! ;) Whenever you’re ready. I don’t think I’ve read any of Le Guin’s short stories, but I loved her “Earthsea Trilogy” when I was younger. Great books. I think if you’re exploring different viewpoints and different implications through different characters you’ll succeed marvelously at approaching theme without moralizing. I can’t wait to see!

  2. May 28, 2011 2:15 am

    Theme is probably the last thing I considered before finishing my first draft, but it is something I’ve been considering since. Subconsciously I think we all weave themes into our tales, though, whether we can see them right away or not. I like to look back during the editing stage, see what themes have emerged and then find ways to bring them out more throughout the story.

    I guess one advantage to this approach is that because I wasn’t worried or conscious of themes from the beginning, I never actually gave myself the opportunity to moralize while writing the story. Once you’ve got the big picture in front of you, it’s easier to see if any irrelevant or trivial themes (or other details, for that matter) have surfaced and need to be cut, or if there are certain themes that are present and have potential but at the moment are underdeveloped. (I’m realizing that I’ve been playing with motifs and symbolism, as well–which for me are very much connected to theme–and I’m taking a similar approach to bringing out these elements in the editing process; here is when sticky and paper-clipped notes are my true friends, lol.)

    The disadvantage to this approach would be that you’d have to do most of your work on themes later on rather than up front, so I guess it’s just a question of how you want to approach your story initially.

    • May 31, 2011 8:36 am

      That’s definitely a fine way of approaching the topic. I think this is more in line with the “discovery writer” method of writing, and your approach would allow discovery writers the ability to incorporate theme more fully into their work while writing in their preferred mode.

  3. June 13, 2011 4:37 pm

    A correctable shortcoming! bahahaha!

    Also very insightful post, but I’m still laughing at the first part.

    • June 13, 2011 4:49 pm

      Hey, hope springs eternal. :) One of the few things about this process I can control is my positive thinking… and so there you go, there’s my positive thinking. (I did rather intentionally phrase it in a humorous way.) Glad the rest of the post was insightful to you as well.

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