Is theme the moral of a story? Is it the message an author wants to share? Or is it something more inherent to the plot itself?
If this were a multiple-choice test, then I’d hope you would have chosen C. Although theme is potentially both a moral and a message, neither of these should be its point (if they are, then you need to be wary of turning your story into a soapbox). Neither should they be the origin of theme.
Where Does Theme Come From?
Theme is inextricably linked to your main character’s arc. Take the person he is at the beginning of the story, subtract that person from who he is at the end, and the difference between the two is your theme. When Scrooge the selfish miser becomes Scrooge the friend and humanitarian, Dickens’s theme emerges as “the value of humanity over money.”
Even though a story may explore many different topics of moral and emotional interest, the central theme is always the one the protagonist himself is discovering. Easy enough, right? But it actually gets a little more interesting.
How Minor Characters Define Theme
A protagonist out there alone on a desert island will be able to discover a theme just fine all by his lonesome. But if your story allows you to supply him with a couple key minor characters, then go ahead and put them to work in helping you build a more coherent and resonant theme.
How can we do that? Let’s examine a few tactics.
Emphasize Your Minor Characters’ Different Approaches to Theme
Let’s say your protagonist’s journey is going to teach him that true respect must be earned by what a person does, rather than by how rich he is or how much social standing he has. Basically, you could sum up your theme as “respect.”
You could explore any number of aspects of respect and disrespect: respect of self, respect of superiors, respect of inferiors, etc.
Your main character will be focused on one specific aspect of respect. But your minor characters could also each be dealing with their own respect issues. One character might be trying to respect a difficult authority figure. Another might be fighting personal demons of guilt in order to hang on to his last shreds of self-respect. And another might believe that respect is an illusion and, therefore, might as well be gained by deceiving others.
Allowing each character to approach the subject from a slightly different angle gives you all kinds of material to play with in exploring every aspect of your theme.
Contrast Your Sidekick With Your Protagonist
Sidekicks are characters who are almost wholly supportive of your protagonist. They’re along for the ride on the same journey as your protagonist, and they’re cheering him along in his pursuit of his goals. Your protagonist and his sidekick character(s) will share many similarities.
But they should also share key differences. And it’s in these differences that your theme will begin to emerge. These differences can be good or bad. If your protagonist believes only rich people are worthy of respect, your sidekick might believe “it’s what you do that defines you.” Or if your protagonist believes respect has to be earned, his sidekick might be the one who believes it’s all right to lie to others in order to trick them into respecting him.
The contrast between the beliefs and actions of these two allies will bring your theme into clearer focus.
Compare Your Antagonist With Your Protagonist
When you think about an antagonist, you’re probably more likely to focus on the ways in which he’s different from your protagonist. But some of the most important aspects of your story will emerge thanks to the ways in which the antagonist and the protagonist aren’t so different at all.
In Writing Screenplays That Sell, screenwriter Michael Hauge explains:
Theme emerges when the hero’s similarity to the nemesis and difference from the reflection [sidekick] are revealed…. A nemesis won’t necessarily represent some bad quality that the hero also possesses and has to overcome. The similarity between hero and nemesis can involve either a positive or negative characteristic and it can be revealed at the beginning … at the end, or anywhere in between. The only rule is to find a similarity.
Your protagonist and your antagonist might both have been kids who felt the sting of the societal disrespect that comes from being poor. As a result, they both believe wealth equals respect. That common ground between them creates all kinds of interesting thematic possibilities. Both the temptations your protagonist will be subjected to and the warnings (full of foreshadowing!) about what he could become are rife with thematic subtext.
When you use your characters to illustrate your theme, you not only open up the thematic possibilities, you also allow theme to play out naturally in the story—instead of stating it point-blank and cramming it down readers throats.
Tell me your opinion: How could you use your minor characters to help flesh out your theme?
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