the all-important link between theme and character progression

The All-Important Link Between Theme and Character Progression

Theme is a slippery concept. The prevailing wisdom among writers is that if you apply any deliberate force to your theme, you’ll end up with a heavy-handed Aesop’s fable. On the other hand, a story without a theme is shallow escapism at best and an unrealistic flop at worst.

Theme is arguably the single most important facet of a memorable story. Vivid characters, witty dialogue, and killer plot twists can certainly carry a story by themselves, but without theme they will never deliver their full potential. And yet, no theme at all is often far better than a poorly delivered theme.

How to Create a Powerful Theme Every Single Time

If you concentrate too much on theme, you risk alienating your audience through moralizing. But if you squelch all thoughts of theme, you’re likely to rob your story of its central life force, its heartbeat, its meaning. So what’s a writer to do?

The key is the link between theme and character progression. As with almost every other aspect of story, character once again is the vital key to making your theme come to unforgettable life. Ultimately, theme is the lesson your characters will have learned (or failed to have learned) by the end of the story. Theme is inherent in your characters’ struggles and, therefore, to the story itself. The best of themes well up effortlessly and even unconsciously from the heart of the characters’ actions and reactions.

In Joseph Conrad’s classic Lord Jim (affiliate link), the saga of a young sailor who is haunted by his one cowardly act, the theme could perhaps be summed up as the repercussions of betrayal. Because the theme is a natural outflowing of Jim’s initial action (saving his own life instead of aiding his ship’s drowning passengers) and his subsequent reactions (fleeing in shame, hiding out on an Indonesian island, and, ultimately, learning from his initial mistake and refusing to save his own life when the island comes under attack), Conrad’s vicarious views on the subject can never be construed as moralizing or off-point. Indeed, the theme is at the very heart of the novel. Without it, Lord Jim would merely have been a rambling tale featuring the journeys of an ambiguous and forgettable young man.

Theme and Character, Character and Theme

The key to strong theme is strong character progression. The changes your character undergoes in the chapters between the inciting incident and the climax will define your theme. But these changes must flow naturally from the characters. If Conrad hadn’t presented Jim as an idealistic young man who desperately regretted his actions aboard the Patna, the ending in which Jim chooses to sacrifice himself on the island would never have rung true. It would have come across as forced and unrealistic. Conrad would have been guilty of moralizing—that blackest of authorial sins—and Lord Jim would certainly have never reached its classic status.

So how does one go about implementing theme? Or perhaps the better question would be—should one go about implementing theme? Many writers avoid deliberate thoughts of theme in their first drafts. They enter their stories with little or no intention for a theme. Then, typically somewhere in the middle of the novel, the characters will do or say something that suddenly dangles the scarlet thread of theme in front of the delighted author’s nose.

How to Find Theme

From the moment of a story’s conception, I have my eyes stretched wide to catch that first glimpse of a possible theme. The single most important trick for capturing the sometimes elusive and always ephemeral theme is to pour myself into creating authentic characters who react to their various crucibles in authentic ways.

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist

Dreamlander (affiliate link)

I’ve come to the point in Dreamlander (affiliate link), my current project, where I have to watch my step and make sure that my main character’s every action, every word, every thought rings true. Because, as an outliner, I knew where the story would end, I had a pretty good idea of theme before I ever started writing. What I didn’t have a good idea of was exactly how my character’s intermediary actions would snowball toward that ending.

Now that I’m approximately two-thirds of the way through the story, I know my characters much better than I did when I began, and I can see places in the early chapters that I will need to strengthen to make the characters’ actions and reactions matter on a deeper level. Although I’ve known since the beginning what the thematic questions for this story would be, the answers, as they sometimes do, took their time in coming. But because I knew the questions and kept them firmly in mind throughout the writing process, I was ready to answer them when the plot and the characters had progressed far enough.

Are You Asking Yourself These Thematic Questions?

Whenever you’re ready to start thinking about theme, as yourself the following questions:

What’s the main character’s internal conflict?

For most novels, this is a question that gets answered very early, since it will drive the entirety of the story.

Which of the main character’s views will change as a result of the story’s events? How and why?

This is where you’ll find the underlying force of your theme. Your character’s views will define his actions, and his actions will define the story.

How will the main character demonstrate his respective views and attitudes at the beginning and the end of the story?

This is an extension of the previous question, but it is vital because its answer will demonstrate the changes to the reader.

Is there any particular symbolism that can reinforce the theme and the character’s attitude toward it?

Like theme itself, symbolism is often overstated and therefore generally better when culled organically from your own unconscious mind. For example, sometimes you’ll find yourself using a particular color or image to represent something; if the symbol proves effective, you can later go back and strengthen it throughout the story.

How can I use the subtext (the unstated) to exemplify the theme, so that I won’t have to spell it out for the reader in so many words?

When it comes to theme, the unstated is almost always more powerful than the direct. Often, in real life, when we find ourselves learning lessons and changing views, we can’t immediately define the changes in precise language. And neither should your character. Lord Jim didn’t have to tell us that his actions on the island were a direct result of his earlier cowardice; it was obvious from the subtext and would, in fact, have been weakened if Conrad had mentioned it outright.

Story without theme is like ice cream without milk. But to be effective, theme must be organic and, often, understated. Like all the finer points of writing, theme is an art, but certainly one worth mastering.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How is your theme linked to your protagonist’s arc? Tell me in the coments!

the all-important link between theme and character progression

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I am so bad at predetermining theme. I fit what you wrote: writing first, then finding the theme somewhere around the middle. In fact, I think you were the one who pointed out the theme to Ride. I was so involved in the characters’ activities that I forgot little things — like conflict and theme.

    (that’s what critters are for) 😀

  2. A lot of times I might have something like a global theme, but let the character approach it in a unique way. For example the theme in my third short story was actually a subversion of the actual theme, as a question “Is it ok to steal, if there is nobody left in the world but you?”

    • That sounds like an awfully easy question. All the reasons why we have property (which is, of course, a social construct) go away when everyone else is dead with no heirs. There’s no one to steal from!

      Legally, when someone dies without heirs, the property goes to the state–the sovereign. I would say that the only living person left qualifies as a sovereign (one whose deeds cannot be undone by aanyone else).

  3. @Sarah: Love it! Life is full of moral ambiguity. Good fiction explores that gray area and forces the reader to ask hard questions – rather than just supplying easy answers.

  4. Theme is something I struggle with grasping a bit. I’m one of those writings for whom to prewrite plot or theme is to kill the story dead on the vine. I just can’t do it. I have to let them emerge from the characters interacting with the premise. As I go along, I’m have a good idea of what happens a medium distance in front of me, probably three to five scenes in no particular order, but rarely more.

    Worse, I tend towards literary. Plot reveals the character and, as in Japanese story forms, the focus of the story tends toward understanding and revelation rather than conflict, growth, and resolution. Not to say the conflict-aspect doesn’t occur, but the focus isn’t weighted there.

    All that to preface into my current story is the first novelette-length story of mine that works. I write extremely dense, so most of my stories have been short. As a writer I went from rambly insufferable novels to journeyman poetry and flash fiction (which I still write) to short stories to my current novelette. I’m currently deep in the process of analyzing this novelette to figure out how to repeat the success, preferably with longer fiction.

    It’s a science fiction procedural (aforementioned superhumans) with a procedural plot, but the character’s doesn’t really have an “arc.” I figured out from my sketchy first draft WHY the story was hers because it is the exploration of a theme and her character, but in truth, I can’t say she grows in the story or even changes. The reader comes to know her as she makes a huge sacrifice of what could have been her life in order to rescue someone who doesn’t especially deserve rescuing. (It sounds horrible when I deconstruct it that way.)

    The theme appears to be my initial prompt that started the whole story: the MC Rachelle’s understanding of love and sacrifice and how those two are inextricably intertwined. It doesn’t stem from anyone changing—I don’t think a single character really changed in the whole story—but that idea plays out in the story.

    I think you’re right about character being the way to do it. I did not deliberately write the theme in there, if that is indeed my theme, but it’s WHY this is Rachelle’s story, because that’s what the story reveals about her, this understanding of why she feels the way she does about love, why she’s willing to do what she does, why she’s not willing to let someone else love her and be willing to sacrifice in the same way.

    I discovered the theme by simply rewriting the story more deeply from inside my character. I think I’m on the right track, but I don’t know either how this fits in with the character growth aspect, seeing as she didn’t have any. In Dramatica’s terms, she’s the Resolve character. She doesn’t change. Nevertheless, neither did anyone else.

    • One of those writers. Today is apparently my day for typos.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Theme is always going to be strongest in stories in which the protagonist exhibits some kind of change. I’m actually going to be talking more about how characters impact theme in Sunday’s post. In change arc stories, the primary theme can always be found by “subtracting” who the character is at the end of the story from who he is at the beginning. But in stories with “flat” arcs, the theme is usually more dependent on how the protagonist changes the world around him, rather than how the world changes him.

  5. I thoroughly enjoy novels with clear themes and strong character arcs. I tend to gravitate toward novels with themes of forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and freedom.

    In my current (inspy romance) novel, the theme is a simple one: forgiveness. The protagonist starts out convinced that she has forgiven her childhood sweetheart, but when they are reunited after ten years, she realizes that although she may have moved on, she’s never forgiven him. In the end she does forgive him, and he realizes that although he believed he acted unselfishly to please others, in reality he was feeding his ego. He forgives himself for his selfish actions.

    I’m a mix of pantser and plotter. I usually begin a novel with a vague idea of a theme, plenty of scenes in my mind, and an ending. As the story unfolds, the original theme grows stronger, or sometimes morphs into a completely different theme if I take the characters into a different direction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Forgiveness and sacrifice are biggies for me too. I call them my “scarlet threads,” because they seem to be woven in all of my stories, one way or another.

  6. Can you think of a storyu in which the character’s arc is the reverse of Lord Jim’s — fron self-sacrificing to, um, not so much?

    Or from obedient to stand-up-for-self?


  1. […] Reading: K.M. Weiland to the rescue! Click here: The All-Important Link Between Theme and Character Progression. […]

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