How Minor Characters Help You Discover Theme

How Minor Characters Help You Discover Theme

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?

Creating Character Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (affiliate link)

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

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

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?

How Minor Characters Help You Discover Theme

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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. Michael Kelberer says

    Hi – I like this post and would like to share. I noticed though that the audio doesn’t actually play when I click the play icon. It changes to the Pause icon, but nothing happens – no audio and the time counter doesn’t budge from zero. I’m using Chrome and it and my operating system are all up to date.
    Great blog (and books!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hmm, I’m not sure why it’s not working for you. It works fine for me in Chrome. Have you tried another browser?

      • Michael Kelberer says

        Hmm – works fine now. Perhaps I failed to give my computer sufficient coffee this morning….

      • How do we know if a minor character arc doesn’t belong in a story?
        I don’t know my theme, but I know that the main character needs to choose love over chasing power.

        I have a minor character who is the brother of the love interest, he’s supposed to be holding a grudge against the father and feels his brother doesn’t trust him to help. The minor character has a positive change arc.

        I wrote my arcs for the antag, ptotag, and love interest, but I can’t seem to write a character arc for this minor character.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          If you can pull it from the story without affecting the main plot in the Climax, pull it.

          • Ajay Ravi Varma says

            Love this simple test! I’ve got three POV characters and a sidekick already. The fourth character really fits into the theme, but may not influence the climax in terms of plot without it becoming contrived. I think I’ll create a smaller arc and let it fade away before the final act. Thanks!

  2. I usually don’t figure out my theme in any book until after I’ve been through it a few times with revision. In fact, the only book where I’ve actually figured out my overarching theme has been put on the shelf for the time being! All of my characters had issues with letting go of the past, and it was something that came through very strongly in the novel. Many ofo my supporting characters were there to prod my MC along to let go of the past, while my antagonists forced my protag to face her past head on (in another aspect.) Even my MC’s father forced her to deal with the past, although in a very different aspect.

    I still want to figure out if that story is publishable since it’s got some good stuff in it.

  3. OH, thanks so much for this post! I need to give it a thought. I´m actually struggling with my WIP because even when I sort of know where do I want to lead it I can´t really find a theme… so I´m usure what is it my main carácter will learn (exactly as you pointed). So I´ll start giving that a better thought. And hope it picks up from there.
    Hope you are well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Next month, I’m going to be starting a series on character arcs. It might come in handy in helping you see what and where your character needs to learn.

    • M., maybe you need to take a look at what your character’s need is. It should be at least a psychological need (something that only affects her), and preferably a moral need as well (something she does that is hurting others).

      Connect that need to something that happened to her in the past, and then force her to go through something that will face that exact weakness. That will be your main inciting event, or First Plot Point, as Larry Brooks at Storyfix talks about.

      Lastly, think about what your MC will learn at the end of the story. This will be her self-revelation, and from that, you’ll be able to easily pull out the theme of your story.

      A bit shorthand, but hope it helps.

  4. As I mentioned earlier, I’m VERY interested right now in the questions of theme and plot, but I have to disagree.

    I just finished reading… well, a TON of books, but particularly The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner and Jodi Picoult’s The Tenth Circle. Their themes could not be summed up that way, except the last Thief book, Conspiracy of Kings.

    In the King of Attolia and The Tenth Circle in particular, I found it so. KoA dealt heavily with Gen’s (main character) coming to grips with power and ruling even though he didn’t want to as well as with Costis’s (viewpoint) growing understanding of who Gen was. All the books do a remarkable job at dissecting Gen, even though only the first is from his viewpoint. But the theme is really about what is real and what parts of that reality matter and how do we know what is real.

    In Tenth, the theme is about who are we really underneath, the dark parts or light parts and does that matter? I can’t say the characters grow to reveal that theme; they question it and the answer the book provides remains somewhat ambiguous but very powerful.

    I do think a plot-related character growth is ONE way to show theme, but in the case of character studies and sleight-of-hand stories, it seems to take a backseat to a revelation-approach. That is, the plot instead of growing the character reveals the character and instead of answering the theme, interrogates the theme.

    I’m still pondering this, and this is hardly a theory more than a hypothesis, but I can’t seem to make the traditional theory work for these stories, even though Turner’s are squarely genre and heavy on plot growing characters. :still chewing on this:

    Any thoughts related to this much appreciated.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’d have to read the books to offer any concrete opinion. However, it’s absolutely true that theme is revealed in many ways. Sometimes theme can obviously be summed as one idea; sometimes it’s much more complex. In some stories – war epics are a good example – the theme is more obvious as the backdrop than the plot or the characters. As you and I discussed in a comment on another post, the approach to theme depends in some part on the type of character arc you’re dealing with. Change arcs always present the most obvious themes. But flat arcs usually deal with characters who, in one way or another, *are* the change; they remain static while changing the world around theme. Seems like the stories you mentioned may fit into those categories. In negative arcs, you usually get a reverse image of the theme you would have gotten from a positive arc. But negative arcs present more complexity in theme, since not only do you have a negative change going on, but you also are usually going to have other characters acting out positive arcs.

      • I guess one of the reasons I’m grappling with this in regards to say, Queen of Attolia or King of Attolia, is that the character DOES change and grow, but it’s not his growth that seems to convey the theme. It’s almost like the plot is used as an element instead of the main point.

        I don’t have another example convenient just now that you’d probably have read, but I’ll keep thinking on it.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It could very well be that the characters you’ve mentioned *don’t* carry the theme. Rules are made to broken! And sometimes they’re broken better than others. Theme is nebulous enough that writers and even editors don’t always consider how to strengthen it, which is why we sometimes get stories that could have been nth more awesome if only they’d had a theme that jived better with the primary character arcs. But that’s not to say that theme *can’t* work apart from character arcs; it’s just that the two are at their most powerful when they’re in sync.

  5. Theme doesn’t always come to me immediately, but I still think it’s helpful to figure it out soon after coming up with an idea. I like Stephen Kings advice on writing for the most part, but when he says theme needs a long time to be discovered, I’m not sure I agree with him. There’s nothing wrong if it happens to be that way, but I don’t think there is any thing wrong with knowing what you want from the beginning/early stages either. It’s helpful to have that sort of basic direction even if the outlining is minimal, plus you can discover other facets to your theme as you write which still makes it raw.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      How early in the process you discover theme depends in large part on your process. People who do a lot of plotting upfront will know their plots and character arcs before they ever start writing the book. If you know the gist of both of those, it’s generally easy to spot potential themes.

  6. Thanks. This is a very useful, informative post. I look forward to your series on character arcs.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you enjoyed it! I’ve been planning the character arcs series for a while now. It’s a subject that always excites me. Right now, I’ve got it scheduled to start on February 9th.

  7. Siegmar Sondermann says

    Theme, what theme.

    Ok, I´m still a beginner, but I don´t get it.
    If something happens to my protagonist or if I give him a goal to achieve, if I change his believes or his manner or whatever, I have a story.
    What is theme other than a label on a novel.

    As I said, I´m still a beginner.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like to think of theme as the “soul” of the story. It’s the moral statement about the world. All stories make them, some more deliberately than others. You could definitely say it’s a “label,” of sorts, but theme goes much deeper than that. It’s the revelation of what the characters’ journeys are really about and why they really matter – to the characters and to the readers.

    • If it helps, you can also think of theme as what concept or idea or new understanding does the reader walk away with when they’re done with your story. Theme is that overall impression the story gives you, the foundation, what it means, etc.

      That’s more the reader perspective than the writer, but it might help you understand what she’s trying to help the writer create intentionally.

  8. Siegmar Sondermann says

    No offense meant.

  9. Good points, KM. It ties in with Stanley Williams’ “Moral Premise.” Every character and every subplot should work to support the theme (or premise). Nothing should happen by accident. You also mentioned the statement of the them from the sidekick. That’s something I’ve been trying to incorporate into my novels as well. A simple remark by a secondary character will plant the seed in your reader’s conscious. Keep it nurtured throughout every character and subplot, and it will have a huge impact when you tie it all together at the end. Thanks for another great post, KM.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, definitely. Michael Hauge’s Writing a Screenplay That Sells is also a great book to read on this subject.

  10. Thanks so much for this post! I’ve been wrestling with how to better communicate the theme of my WIP without making it too overt, and fixing up some contrasting minor characters sounds like it should do the job. Making them more colorful and different should also make the storyline much more interesting — I’ve been worried that my characters are too boring. Great timing 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Characters are our best tools for showing our readers just about anything, rather than telling them. This is just as true of theme as it is of anything else.

  11. In my superhero stories, the theme is good versus evil, though Samantha is pretty dark since she opposes how StarGirl handles things and that StarGirl isn’t good enough and StarGirl knows she’s good enough and that she can fight someone like Samantha.

  12. characters in story are our role models. They show us how a book should be. By getting interested in it then when we want to read more we become a good reader

  13. Tony Findora says

    This was very eye opening!!! After reading and thinking about my story as I have been going through the outline process, I now I understand a bit better my theme and where I can fit it in and how itanifests itself! Thank you very much!

  14. Cindy Ratliff says

    I just feel the need to share this here. This gave me a much needed insight into thematic exploration. Shawshank Redemption (movie) is a good thematic model. It explores institutionalization in a prison system with a message of hope. The simple message is hope can set you free as demonstrated by Andy as an impact character who resists compliance and acceptance. The MC narrator, Red expresses an opposite view of institutionalization by embracing compliance and acceptance without hope until the climactic event. After this point, Red shows a change of attitude about compliance and acceptance which results in parole. He still struggles with his conditioning until he reads the letter Andy left for him which gives him a new direction and finally, Hope.


  1. […] 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?  […]

  2. […] Find out how to put key minor characters to work in helping you build a more coherent and resonant theme.  […]

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  5. […] “Find out how to put key minor characters to work in helping you build a more coherent and resonant theme.”  […]

  6. […] How Minor Characters Help You Discover Your Theme | Helping Writers Become Authors […]

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