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.


The Sound of One Hand Reading

The Killers are delighted to welcome bestselling suspense author
Eric Stone to the blog today. Eric writes the Ray Sharp series of detective thrillers, which are set in Asia and based on true stories.

There are 36 Spenser novels by Robert Parker. (I just counted them on his website.) I know a whole lot about what Spenser and his girlfriend (or maybe she’s his wife by now, I haven’t read one in quite some time) Susan Silverman eat. I know pretty much about what they wear. Or at least what they used to wear; fashions change, maybe even for them. I know they have sex, because often as not, after they’ve whipped up some pasta and a salad or grilled something and opened a bottle of reputable wine, they pad off to bed, closing the door discreetly behind them.

Now it could well be, it likely is, that after all those books together Spenser and Susan have pretty dull sex. Sure, in those earlier books, behind those closed doors, they probably took turns tying each other up, they got out some toys, indulged in some role playing. Maybe Spenser liked to try and squeeze into her panties or had a thing for leather or latex or a bit of the old bite and punch and tickle. But they’ve been together for quite some time and if their relationship is like most people’s, well, you know, they’ve probably got other things on their minds.

But we’ll never know.

I want to know.

Maybe not so much about Spense and Sue anymore, but you know what I mean. Call my interest prurient if you will, but I think the details of what people do in the sack with each other are at least as interesting and important to understanding what makes them tick as the fact that they’ve just consumed a spring garden salad, pasta primavera and an insouciant early harvest Bordeaux.

Sex is important. Biologically speaking, it’s the only reason we bother to survive at all. It’s the deep down dark dirty driving force behind a whole lot of plots and schemes and actions.

When and where and what and how someone feels and what they do when they – and yes, I’m about to be crass about this – want to get laid, pursue getting laid, get laid and have got laid – tells you something about them. It can tell you a lot. I think it tells you more about them than what they had for dinner does.

But it’s mostly off limits. Many of the books that are considered quite sexy, are really rather tame, not very explicit. It’s okay to tease, tantalize or titillate your reader, but apparently not to fully turn them on.

Why not? I’ve read more than a few reviews that refer favorably to mouth-watering descriptions of meals that sent the reader straight to their refrigerator. I have yet to read a review in which the reviewer owns up to having happily read the book one handed. (There, wasn’t that discreet of me?)

There’s a lesbian sex scene in SHANGHAIED, my new book that is coming out at the end of June. It’s the first one I’ve ever written. I think the details (the very basic mechanics) of it tell you a lot about the characters involved. But then, not being a lesbian, or even a woman, I was nervous about my qualifications for writing the scene.

So I sent it to a lesbian friend of mine for her critique; technical and otherwise. The next day she told me that she and her girlfriend both read it, then ended up in a nice, long, hot, steamy, soapy shower together. Maybe I should ask her for a blurb.


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Paul Levine, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.