Developing a theme through characters

Before there was story structure–before there were even novels—there was theme. A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. In King Lear, for example, one of its themes is authority versus chaos.

But to me, a novel’s theme is not merely the abstract principle behind the plot; I believe that you have to bring a story’s theme to life through its characters. Ideally, several of the major characters should portray a variation on the underlying ideas that inform the story. Those characters will reflect the light and depths of your theme, the way the facets of a diamond show off its hidden fire.

In A Killer Workout, the second installment in the Fat City Mysteries, I created a “Mean Girls” theme. I wrote several different characters to illustrate that underlying idea. One character had been victimized by bullies in her youth–another was herself a bully. Still another character had grown up to become a protector of abused young women. Through each of these women’s stories and backgrounds, I explored the ideas of bullying, emotional abuse, and “mean girls” in various ways.

I use my characters to do a “360” exploration of the theme of each of my novels. The secondary characters’ experiences in terms of the theme are usually more intense and extreme than my protagonist’s. They act as “theme foils,” and they also propel her journey through the plot.

What about you? How do you develop the theme for your stories? Do you create your theme at the beginning of your writing, or does it emerge slowly as you write? And how do you illustrate your theme?
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, Steve Berry, and more.

19 thoughts on “Developing a theme through characters

  1. I usually have a slight idea of what my story might be about thematically, but it can, and often does, change by the end. That’s because, as you suggest, the characters take on life and start to tell me what they care about, showing only passing interest in my well laid out plans for them.

    Some writing tomes say you have to start with a “premise” such as “Greed leads to Destruction.” For some reason I’ve never been able to do that and make it stick. For me, theme has to rise organically through the characters and their struggles.

  2. Theme plays a vital role in the thrillers that Lynn Sholes and I write. Because our protagonist and antagonist represent the extremes of good and evil, the theme is obvious. Cotten Stone is the reluctant daughter of a Fallen Angel, and her antithesis, masquerading as a kindly old grandfatherly type is the devil himself. The stakes are high.

    Beyond the global theme, with the start of each book we asked ourselves, what else does Cotten need to learn? And that is the basis for that particular book’s theme. Once we know it, every word can be directly or indirectly aimed at fulfilling the theme. Of course, things can change in the process of writing the story, so the theme might shift or morph slightly. But it’s always guided by the global them: Good will win, bad will not. The thing I believe makes it a suspenseful thriller is that the reader doesn’t know how until the end.

  3. I used to have a theme in mind when I started something, but found it always changed as I wrote the first draft. Then I read Stephen King’s book On Writing and found his themes developed as he wrote the book and figured if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me, so i stopped worrying about it. The good news is that any themes in what I write are now more organic. The bad news is that sometimes not even I’m sure of what they are.

  4. Joe, I’m impressed by the way you’ve organized your thriller series thematically. A series about a fallen angel’s child and the Devil almost demands it! James, nowadays I don’t start writing until I’ve at least penciled in what I think will be the theme that will impact the characters. Of course, that theme can always change as the writing moves along. I can well imagine I might plan to write about one theme at the beginning, but then another theme might emerge later on. Then I would think I’d have to go back and tweak things to make it all “fit”. Maybe I’m just a theme junkie!

  5. Kathryn~

    Yeah, theme is why I write, I’d have to say. It’s what I’m trying to say, to express, via the story. So it all starts with theme for me. But themes are a “dime a dozen” (cliches would be a nice blog topic) so it’s how the characters illustrate the theme that’s the key.

    I’m most interested in stories about people trying to become something other than what they already are. Can they change? What will it take for them to change – to be better? To erase the mistakes of the past, if possible? So my themes tend to be “internal” themes rather than like Joe and Lynn’s grand scale good vs. evil stories. But their stories sure are a blast to read!

    I guess what I’m saying, it’s the characters and the story that illustrates the theme that is more important than the theme itself.

  6. Dana, who was the Hollywood wag who said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union”?” Maybe Stephen King’s right and themes aren’t necessary. I like them as a reader, though, and find myself gravitating toward them as a writer. In the same manner, I love to discover “image systems” in the films that I watch. They give me a sense that there is a guiding principle behind the work that I’m viewing.

    Mark, I think you’re exactly right about characters being the most important way that theme is expressed. I remember that when I discovered that “360” idea of intensifying the theme through the experiences of my characters, it was like a light bulb going off. Now, whatever theme I have, I project extreme versions of its expression, and illustrate that through the experiences of the characters in the novel. So, say for example your theme is something as mundane as “beauty is only skin deep.” (How’s that for a cliche, Mark?) That’s the theme of my upcoming book, Makeovers Can be Murder. So I created characters that play off different angles of that theme. One character is obsessed by perfection, and will stop at nothing to achieve it. Another is so insecure that she doesn’t realize that she’s already externally beautiful. Another wields her beauty like a weapon. And so on!

  7. Kathryn, this is a very interesting and timely post for me. When speaking to writers or readers, the question about “theme” frequently comes up, and in much the same framework as you present it here. And I end up donning my blankest dear-in-the-headlights look and try to sound not-stupid in my answer.

    I never think about theme. Ever. Not as I write, and not as I read. I think about character and story. I think about structure and am keenly aware of pacing, but hand to God, “theme” as such never crosses my mind.

    Now it gets really weird: When I’m done and look backward over the story, I can clearly see the themes of what I’ve written. More times than not, the overarching theme of my work deals with people struggling to cope with loss and anger while staying true to their moral compass–while other people are trying to kill them.

    Even in the above paragraph, when I write it down, the theme seems so corny and trite. Maybe that’s why I never embrace it at the beginning of the creative process. Maybe I’m such a Boy Scout in my real life that I worry about turning people (or myself) off.

  8. Kathryn
    Great post – I usually have a sense of the thematic elements I think the character and plot will demonstrate but they are very much on the back burner. When I try too hard to incorporate the ‘theme’ I find the characters and plot don’t seem to flow – it feels awkward so I let the characters and story tell themselves. That being said when I re-read my WIPs the themes are always pretty obvious but they seem les contrived than in if I try and force the theme. Does that make sense?

  9. John, you probably have such a strong grasp on the central idea of your story that you naturally incorporate them into your characters and action as you write. You don’t have to worry too much about following a recipe to get good results.

    I’m more like the insecure puppeteer who is constantly fretting over keeping my story’s strings from getting tangled. So I get very fussy, making sure for example that my characters present a full “theme spectrum.” (I just made that up, grin).

    Clare, you’re right about the risk of a too-obvious theme making the story seem contrived. For example, a “360” theme exploration could become a character echo chamber, if overdone.

  10. Wow, this is interesting because I was just thinking about this topic as I am fleshing out a draft I pulled off the “give it a break for a year shelf”.

    The thought was, “How in the world did I come up with that?”

    While I agree that it may seem weird, I find that James & John G’s method works best for me as well. The particular story started with the image a male character in his late 40’s stranded in a desert. Next thing I know WW3 had begun and he was running with Iranian guerillas. The theme? 1)Stay alive, 2)do what’s right, even if doing what’s right means you fail #1.

    The characters are what makes the story. I think readers want to identify with them and even live their exciting lives by proxy. When the characters are well formed the theme of the story comes into vibrant colour by the natural way they acquit themselves in the story.

  11. “Do what’s right, even if doing what’s right means you fail.”
    I sense a theme there, Basil. A middle-aged western guy running with Iranian guerillas…potentially a Nathaniel Hawthorne-type theme of guilt versus innocence, or the individual versus society.

  12. There you have it…the theme rose from within the heart of the character as the story moved him forward.

    I love this kinda stuff. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  13. I think I’m of the John Gilstrap school of theme: I don’t think much about it, reading or writing. If one evolves as I tell the story, it’s a bonus. I’m most interested in how my characters respond to the situation they face.

  14. Great post, Kathryn. I don’t consciously incorporate a theme. I don’t usually recognize there even is one until I’m finished with the manuscript. In my WIP, however, the theme is becoming clear to me much earlier (I only have about 100 pp written).

  15. I think a lot of writers share the experience of discovering their theme late in the writing cycle, Joyce. Possibly it’s because theme is not something that we present directly to the reader; we have to create a theme through the details of character and action. The reader must then abstract the theme from those moving parts. It’s easy to lose sight of theme when we’re busy thinking about creating character, plot, and dialogue.

  16. Or to lose sight of where it came from when you are thirsty and need a drink but the fridge and sink are no where near the computer and the dadgum characters keep following their own theme and you don’t know what it is and don’t want to stop writing because you’re afraid you might miss something even though its happening in your own head but still feel uncertain it will be there if you get up to get a drink so you just keep writing out of desperation to find out what happens next ….gaaassssp….


    They paused …pant …pa ..

    dang….there they go again…no water for you!

  17. Thanks. I am using this in my 8th grade English class to talk about how authors develop themes and dynamic characters. I hope students are interested in reading about how authors struggle with the literary devices they have to identify.

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