How the Truth Your Character Believes Defines Theme

How the Truth Your Character Believes Defines Your Theme

How the Truth Your Characdter Believes Defines Theme PinterestPart 18 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

The best stories always rest upon the foundation of believable character change and thematic depth. In turn, these two vital elements pivot upon the fulcrum of the Lie Your Character Believes and the Truth Your Character Believes.

The Truth Your Character Believes is the transcendent theme of the entire story. It offers your protagonist the potential for positive inner growth and, by extension, the understanding and ability to conquer plot goals and end the overarching conflict with the antagonistic force.

The protagonist’s ultimate relationship to the Truth—and the specific Lie that keeps interfering—will define the entire nature of your story. Characters who end by embracing the Truth undergo Positive Change Arcs. Those who reject the Truth end up in Negative Change Arcs. And those who successfully model the Truth to a positively-changing world around them portray Flat Arcs.

In teaching about character arcs and themes, I almost always focus on the Lie the Character Believes. This is for the simple reason that the Lie is the story’s most obviously catalytic piece. Without the Lie, there is no story; if the protagonist and the surrounding world already possess the Truth, there is no need for change and thus no conflict.

However, in linking back to posts, I’ve been noticing the need for a cornerstone post that specifically talks about the Truth Your Character Believes and its role in the story, as opposed to the Lie’s role. I’ve been holding onto this post idea for a while, waiting for the right opportunity to share it. And that opportunity has come.

Black Panther on Why (if You Really Have to Choose) You Should Choose Theme Over Plot Every Time

Welcome to a very long-overdue eighteenth installment of the Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel. Due to a lengthy series of unfortunate events (including a horrible case of laryngitis and then my one and only local theater closing for change of management), I missed Black Panther‘s historic run in theaters and had to wait to see it on VOD. In the interim, you all have been emailing me like crazy, wondering when I’d be writing about it—so I apologize for the delay and appreciate your patience (and enthusiasm!).

Now, that I’ve seen it, I can report that I liked absolutely everything about this movie—except the structure.

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Black Panther.

That’s a big exception, and I debated whether or not to make this a “don’t” post about what happens to a story’s structural throughline when it fails to set up the antagonistic force opposite the protagonist at every turning point in the story. For the most part, however, I’ve already covered this issue in critiques of Iron Man 3 and Ant-Man.

Anyway, I’d much rather focus on what works. And Black Panther does work, on many levels—not least of which is theme. Optimally, of course, plot and theme work together—one seamlessly generating the other. But this movie is a prime example of how cohesive theme can create a solid story experience even in the face of the occasional plot stumble.

But before we get into all that, here’s my highlight reel of all the other goodies I enjoyed:

  • Excellent casting/characters. Marvel is always good at creating solid ensembles of likable characters who are well cast, but I thought they outdid themselves here. Every character is interesting and, for the most part, original. And every casting choice, from Chadwick Boseman to Michael B. Jordan to, especially, Lupito Nyong’o and Danai Gurira, was phenomenal.

Black Panther TChalla Okoye

  • Winston Duke. Winston Duke. Winston Duke. I gotta give extra props to Winston Duke as rival chieftain M’Baku, whose presence and charisma take over every inch of the screen in every scene he’s in. He was seriously underused, and I hope he gets major screentime and development in sequels.

Black Panther Winston Duke

  • Wakanda. Wakanda, in general, was a delight from start to finish. The culture was well-realized without requiring a massive amount of time or info-dumping to establish. In a superhero landscape filled almost entirely by familiar urban locations, Wakanda feels extremely fresh and interesting, with its juxtaposition of third- and first-world expectations.

Black Panther TChalla Ceremony Tribes Wakanda

  • Mythic fantasy. I’m all about mythic archetypes. So, in a story that could have gone in so many different directions, I was totally psyched by the deeply archetypal values and ideas that were being presented here. It’s closest approximation within the Marvel universe is Asgard, but for my money, its themes are represented much more organically and effectively here. Thor may be regal, and Cap may be noble—but in T’Challa, we get the perfect blend of both.

Black Panther TChalla Challenges Killmonger

  • Costumes, colors, music. Finally, the whole vibe of the movie was delightful. It was beautiful from start to finish. The costumes (especially Nakia’s) were gorgeous and imaginative. The use of color was phenomenal, and the music gorgeous.

Black Panther Ladies

On the flipside, aside from the plot issues, things I would have liked to have seen strengthened included:

  • Humor. The movie has its moments (“He froze, didn’t he?”), but I felt it could have upped its traditional Marvel-esque humor quotient a bit more.
  • Fight scenes. I wasn’t wowed by any of the choreography (except for Okoye’s). The car chase was fun, but the hand-to-hand stuff felt too familiar without any really exciting or gripping moments. Admittedly, though, it’s getting harder and harder for Marvel to come up with fresh takes on the same old pow! pow! stuff.

4 Truths About the Truth Your Character Believes

You’ve heard me say it before: a story is never just a story. Whether or not it’s the author’s conscious intent, a story always says something about the world. And if it’s going to be a good story (i.e., one that resonates with audiences in any measure), then that message is going to have to offer at least a kernel of Truth.

This is why I fundamentally believe story is theme and theme, by extension, is the most important aspect of the storyform. To create a powerful storyform, plot and theme must be joined so closely, they are inextricable. The plot creates the theme, and the theme creates the plot. It doesn’t always work out like this, and humans (being humans) are still able to gain Truth even from less than perfect stories. But if you, as an author, can purposefully enter your story through the door of the thematic Truth Your Character Believes, you will have a much greater understanding of what your plot is really about and how to execute it to its maximum potential within the confines your story’s structure.

To get you started, here are the four most important principles about the Truth Your Character Believes, all of which are on display in Black Panther.

1. The Truth’s Evolving Relationship to the “Little” Lie

I know, I know. That header totally sounds like an axiom. But I mean it in a completely literal way. The Lie Your Character Believes will usually be something very specific to her and to her personal goals and challenges. But the Truth is infinite.

The Truth will have multiple facets, some of which will be linear portals through which your character gradually advances on her way to finding the one aspect of the Truth that finally and forever destroys her Lie.

Other aspects of the Truth will be pertinent to the Lie, but not directly related. These are often aspects that can be explored in subplots via related Lies, believed either by the protagonist herself or by other characters in the story.

The comparative size of the Truth is important in avoiding confusion about the relationship of the Truth to the Lie. Instinctively, when we consider a premise of Truth vs. Lie, we think of the two as essentially equals—e.g., it would seem that for every Lie there is an equal and opposite Truth. But this isn’t necessarily so.

A thematic premise can usually be boiled down to one specific element of Truth (such as Black Panther‘s “responsibility”), but within the story’s exploration of that principle, there will be many ways of expressing the Truth and many related thematic ideas that all contribute to the larger idea.

This can get tricky. You want to create a thematic storyform that is as cohesive and linear as possible—and yet Truth itself is often too “big” to be conveniently packaged. That’s where the Lie comes in. The Lie provides the throughline that interacts with every aspect of the conflict. Destroying the Lie may require many different (if related) elements of Truth, but you know you’re on target as long as overcoming that Lie is central to your story. The moment you branch into other Lies is the moment your story has likely wandered from the path of resonance and cohesion.

Black Panther’s Big Truth vs. Its Specific Lie

As he mourns the death of his beloved father King T’Chaka and prepares to become Wakanda’s new leader, T’Challa starts out believing a very specific Lie: that his father was the perfect king and that his ideas of leadership should be perpetuated—specifically the paramount ideal of protecting Wakanda’s wealth and resources from the rest of the world. Like all convincing Lies, this one presents itself as a good thing. Indeed, even viewers have no reason to initially reject T’Challa’s unquestioning devotion to his noble father’s ideals.

On its surface, this is also a very “small” Lie. It’s a Lie specific to T’Challa himself, since only he is the son of the king. Only he can carry on his father’s mantle and protect his kingdom. And yet, as the story’s progression proves, this small Lie stands in opposition to the much vaster Truth that responsibility requires a marriage of tradition and innovation.

Taken at face value, this huge Truth doesn’t have much to do with T’Challa’s “little” misconception about his father. And yet that little Lie will be the entry point to his character arc over the course of the story.

King Tchaka Black Panther

2. First Act: The Truth the Character Resists

Because the protagonist starts out the story with an extremely limited awareness of the Lie, his awareness of the Truth will be even more limited. In the beginning, the character won’t even know he has a false understanding of something in his world. Indeed, what he starts out with may not be so much a false ideology as a basic resistance to some aspect of the larger Truth. This aspect will be the first of the “smaller” Truths the character will encounter on his way to understanding the story’s “big” Truth.

In the First Act, the character will not yet have fully joined (or even be aware of) the main conflict. As a result, his existence within the Normal World of the Lie will be largely, if not entirely, unchallenged. At this point, the necessity of the Truth isn’t even on his radar; he doesn’t yet have any notion that what he believes isn’t the Truth.

In establishing the argument for the Lie in this early segment of the story, you should also be setting up the initial “entry” Truth, if only by implication. If the character believes that this (the Lie) is true, then what, by implication, is the smallest iteration of the larger Truth standing in opposition to this start-up belief?

The Truth T’Challa Resists in the First Act

T’Challa is a great example of how a Positive Change Arc can occur even in the life of a character who is already “positive.” T’Challa doesn’t undergo a dramatic change from a bad person to a good person. His intentions and personal values are always good. He doesn’t have to learn to be a good king; he just has to learn a few things about how to be a good king.

As a result, his Lie isn’t a monumental question of “good vs. evil.” This makes it much subtler and, in turn, allows his opening Truth to be much subtler. In the First Act, T’Challa desires nothing more than to live up to his father’s legacy. For good reasons, he clings to the age-old traditions that have protected the kingdom from outside depredations. When Nakia, the woman he loves, refuses to become his queen because she has “seen too many in need just to turn a blind eye,” T’Challa doesn’t deny her Truth so much as resist it by reiterating his father’s credos: “If the world found out what we truly are, what we possess, we could lose our way of life.”

Black Panther TChalla Nakia Chadwick Boseman Lupita Nyongo

3. Second Act: The Truth Becomes a Specific Antidote to the Lie

Once the character fully enters the conflict in the Second Act, her relationship to the Lie and the Truth begins to evolve. Throughout the first half of the Second Act, she slowly begins learning about the Truth, until finally she reaches the Moment of Truth at the Midpoint, where she can no longer deny that this Truth is the Truth.

This is a second aspect of the Truth. It is an evolution and a step up from “the Truth the character resists” in the First Act. At the Midpoint, the Truth becomes concrete. It is no longer just a vague idea the protagonist is resisting; it is a concrete ideology that makes total sense within the larger context of the conflict.

But it is still not the entire Truth. At the Midpoint, the character will accept that the Truth is true. But this doesn’t mean she has entirely seen through her Lie. In the second half of the Second Act, she is trying to balance the two. She is trying to accept the Truth without sacrificing the perceived “protection” of her Lie.

The Truth presented at the Midpoint is, in essence, a specific “antidote” to her specific Lie. It is not the entire Truth, in all its glory, but it is a pointed argument, scaled down as a counterpoint to refute her personal Lie.

The Moment of Truth That Begins Overcoming T’Challa’s Lie

T’Challa is shocked and horrified to learn a dark secret from his father’s past: “You ain’t the son of a king. You’re the son of a murderer.”

He learns T’Chaka killed his own brother to protect Wakanda’s secrecy, leaving behind his orphaned and angry nephew, Erik. When Erik arrives in Wakanda—first, to demand that Wakanda use its resources to punish the rest of the world and then to challenge T’Challa for the throne—T’Challa must confront the mistaken belief at the heart of his commitment to his father’s traditional ideas.

This section of the story is underdeveloped since T’Challa is presumed dead and off-stage for almost an entire quarter of the story, but we understand his evolution when he confronts his father on the Ancestral Plane and angrily insists: “You were wrong! All of you were wrong! To turn your backs on the rest of the world! We let the fear of our discovery stop us from doing what is right!”

In realizing his father was not the perfect king he always believed, T’Challa embraces the further Truth that following in T’Chaka’s footsteps won’t guarantee that he, in turn, will be a good king. Instead, he must begin taking responsibility for his own beliefs and actions.

Black Panther Killmonger Fights TChalla

4. Third Act: The World’s Larger Truth

By the time the protagonist rounds the painful reality of the Third Plot Point into the climactic Third Act, he will have confronted his Lie and accepted several entry iterations of the Truth. What remains is for him to understand the larger Truth, to claim it on a deeply internal level, and then to enact it in a way that conclusively impacts the external conflict in the Climactic Moment.

The Third Act provides the largest stage for your story’s largest Truth. This Truth will be one that directly confronts the character’s initial Lie. But it will also transcend that Lie. This is the Truth that has been represented collectively by all the little Truths found throughout the story, either literally or ironically: in the lives of the supporting characters, in the opposition of the antagonistic force, in the tone of the Normal World, in the tone of the Adventure World, and at least symbolically in the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs.

The Third Act demands your character definitively prove his relationship to the story’s Truth. Whatever proof he offers—whether it ends up being an acceptance or a rejection of the Truth—that is what proves your story’s theme. Done well, this never comes across as a “moral of the story,” but rather an organic growth within the character’s life that directly impacts the external plot.

T’Challa’s Larger Truth

Within the external plot, T’Challa’s final confrontation with Erik is about who will sit upon the throne of Wakanda. But more than that, it is a confrontation that will decide whose world view will triumph.

Will Erik’s vengeful belief that Wakanda’s vast resources should be used to “send vibranium weapons out to our War Dogs” prove worthy enough to win the fight?

Or will T’Challa’s traditional ideas that “it is my responsibility to make sure our people are safe, and that vibranium does not fall into the hands of a person like you” find balance with his new mindset that “in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers”?

In the end, it’s not enough for T’Challa to simply reject his Lie. He must embrace the broadest Truth possible. In this instance, the Truth is that responsibility requires more than protecting the past; it requires a proactive sharing for the future. And, of course, he does embrace it.

Black Panther TChalla United Nations

***

No matter the type of story, what rings true in the end is always the Truth. In a Positive Change Arc, like T’Challa’s, that Truth isn’t just recognized or ironically referenced, it is celebrated. The protagonist triumphs because he learns to embrace a larger Truth.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about how Avengers: Infinity War finally gave us a worthy Marvel antagonist.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is the thematic Truth Your Character Believes in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Wow. A lot to unpack in this post. I’m going to need to reread this to fully internalize the advice in this one. As usual, I find we are in sync with the Marvel movies. I was surprised how universally well received this movie was considering its story issues.

    I was also surprised by the talk that Killmonger was the villain that finally reversed Marvel’s trend of weak villains. I’d be curious about your thoughts on that because, as I saw it, the movie made a major misstep by setting up a clear revenge plot from the get go and then shifting to Erik’s desire to use Wakanda’s resources to right perceived wrongs. That agenda felt tacked on to me and caused the pacing of the story to feel wonky, imho.

    And can someone please explain why Klaue was in the movie? He had no purpose as far as I could tell. They were robbing items, but didn’t need the money or the vibranium. And we would later learn that Erik already knew how to find Wakanda without him if I remember correctly. So that whole part of the script added nothing as far as I could tell. And the scene that culminated that whole plot line was doubly disappointing. Not only did it verify my feelings about Klaue’s place in the movie, but Erik handles his girlfriend in a manner that feels like it was meant to invoke some feeling in the viewer even though they’d spent no time with her at all to that point. So it made no impact on me because it was another example of a growing trend I see in movies to not lay the groundwork for relationships and expecting a payoff for the viewer. It’s as if movie makers hope the audience will just insert their feelings because they know what they’re supposed to feel at that moment.

    Sorry. Got off track. I didn’t hate the film, and agree with the bright spots you mentioned. And I appreciate you pointing out the positive in the theme, which I hadn’t considered before. The film was just underwhelming, unfortunately.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think Klaue was the central problem actually. If he hadn’t been set up in Ultron–and therefore a character the producers obviously felt “obligated” to use to one degree or another–there would have been a lot more space for setting up Erik as the primary antagonist throughout the structure instead of really only bringing him center stage at the Midpoint.

      • Very much so. They set him up in Ultron without having a clear payoff in mind. A rare misstep from Feige, it would seem.

        Thoughts on the male supporting characters? The film did such a great job on the female characters, who stole the show imho, but skimped on the arcs of the male characters. W’kabi turned on his old friend with pretty flimsy motivation, imho, and M’baku’s showing up in the nick of time in act three was very cliched. On top of that, I didn’t feel like they spent enough time with Forrest Whitaker’s Zuri to give his fate the weight it needed.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Well, you know how it goes: you only have space to develop so many characters. I think M’Baku will get more development in the future, and, of course, the filmmakers were understandably more interested in the characters who survived than the characters, like Zuri, who didn’t. I did think the female characters were excellent and well-realized. Would have been interesting if they could have used Okoye or the queen mother in the Zuri role (without killing them off) in order to tighten everything up.

          • Usvaldo says:

            Point the first: the death of the girlfriend was a demonstration that Killmonger would let nothing stand in the way of accomplishing his goals. It was a character moment – much like how T’Challa asks Mbaku to back down rather than forcing T’Challa to kill him.

            Klaue’s entire purpose was as a demonstration that Killmkonger gets things done, unlike T’Challa, who is all talk (from Killmonger’s POV). Of course Killmonger knew how to get into Wakanda – it was on the back of Klaue! It’s not laid out in the script, but I imagine Killmonger was using Klaue as his stalking horse to draw out a response from Wakanda.

            Finally, Black Panther is the blackest movie Marvel has ever told. It’s central argument is between two brothers that turns into an argument between two cousins and it is an argument that is more than a century old. It is Garvey v. DuBois, King v. X: does the African American community engage and integrate with a racist nation or does it withdraw into its own enclave and ignore the larger world?

            This is presented against a backdrop of Africa and imperialism. Wakanda was never colonized because it hid its riches from the world. This grounding makes Killmonger not a poorly motivated villain but the best villain in the MCU and yes, Kaya, I’m including that big purple guy you’ll talk about next week. Killmonger’s powerful final line, about how it is better to die free than live in a cage, perfectly summates his world view for the hats and bumper stickers.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Erik isn’t a poorly drawn antagonist at all. His personal motivations and his direct intricacy to T’Challa’s thematic journey is excellent (and a far step up from what we see in most Marvel movies, including Infinity War). But the story could have been strengthened structurally had his presence been solidified more cohesively in the early segments.

  2. Another great analysis, Katie.

    In my fantasy novel, there is a country that thrives on inequality. The primary protagonist (an outsider) believes all people are equal. Her lie is that she is an impartial observer and shouldn’t interfere in another country’s cultural and political structures.

    I admit I’m having a few problems of my own creation: I don’t want the conflict between the status quo and change to be completely resolved in book 1 and I don’t want a traditional sword battle to be the climax. Luckily, I’ve got your analyses to guide me so that I can have a satisfying book even if I thumb my nose at convention.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s definitely okay not to resolve the overarching main conflict/theme in the first book. Every book within a series needs a defined plot structure of its own that is resolved within that book. But the overarching conflict will continue throughout the series.

  3. Just a minute… i’ll be right back to finish reading after I make sure my antagonist is opposite the protagonist at every turning point in the story …

  4. Yeah, finally! 🙂 Great analysis, as always. (And looking forward to what you say about Infinity Wars a lot! I am quite conflicted about that one!) –

    I am getting closer to THE END of my first draft, and I see that on the one hand the “original” truth and lie I had my character wrestling with are still in place and valid and working, but that on the other hand some extra dimensions are popping up. Not contracting ones, but I see a shift (or maybe a growth) in my character happening I had not anticipated. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I probably have to keep a very close eye on that when I start revising: checking if all goes together, and see if I need to plant a bit of what is happening later into the beginning of the story (it might already be there without me noticing, but probably needs strengthening).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing wrong with extra dimensions of the Truth popping up, as long as they’re all thematically related.

  5. I love this method for choosing a catalyst. I feel like so many writers sit for so long trying to find that perfect story arc, searching their imagination for the answer. I’ve moved from fiction to non-fiction/newsy stories in recent years, but this post makes me want to grab my old writing prompts journal and get creative! 🙂

  6. Marianne says:

    Hi,
    I can’t watch any movie without keep saying myself “Oh, this is the inciting incident. This is the Plot Point.” This is my new addiction since I started to write! lol
    Your highlight reel of all the other goodies is exactly what I felt.
    I just loved Klaue as villain, I was disappointed when I realized he was not the ‘biggest’ one in the story. I don’t know, but I felt like Erik was not a good one.
    The problem was that one you’ve answered Jared in a comment above.
    Great analysis! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love Andy Serkis and did like him as Klaue, but ultimately I think his role didn’t serve the overall story as well as it could have.

  7. Michael says:

    Ive not seen the movie, but gradually getting my head around more of the theory. Hoping by time get back into my fiction books major re write will kick it off much better.
    I really like The Lego batman movie’, batmans positive character arc is utterly dependant on the joker throughout the movie. Plus its really funny.

    I need to get round to reading more of the marvel ones with the ones ive actually seen.

    I wonder how much the writers are consciously attempting to apply theory?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Haven’t seen that one yet. It did look funny.

      • Michael says:

        It is, but i couldnt help notice more of how the story was structured and various other aspects of writing theory which im learning more about now, worked for that story. Shows how it applies to dramatic films as well as spoof comedies.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Now, I definitely want to see it!

          • Michael says:

            Well im not a professional writer but it worked as far as my current understanding goes. Enjoy if you do see it. It includes a guest spot of sauron.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            I’ll post a Story Structure Database analysis if I do!

  8. Christina says:

    This concept of the truth vs the lie is the hardest thing to wrap my mind around. I’ve read all your other posts that discuss the subject but I’m still having trouble getting it. I feel like I need more examples to see it in action. Thank you for bringing it up and discussing it. I get that it is important. I’m just being dense about this issue.

  9. Alexa Santi says:

    I just want to circle back to one structural thing that only becomes apparent after the movie was over — the little boy who asks his father to tell him a story about Wakanda at the beginning is *not* T’Challa, as we might have assumed when the movie first began, but Erik (Killmonger) as a little boy in crime-riven Oakland.

    For me, that realization made the themes even deeper and richer. The story both begins and ends in Oakland because that place is the true seat of the thematic conflict, not Wakanda. As Usvaldo pointed out above, one of the underlying themes is the Garvey vs. DuBois argument between returning to Africa and making a place in America. IMO, the film comes down on a specific side of the argument, and it’s not the separatist one.

    Last thing: to me, this film was a great example of how to make a movie that’s mostly about men and male concerns, but still have vitally important and complex women characters in it. The conflict is one that goes back through at least two generations of men and is primarily concerned with a man’s decision about how to be both a good man and a king, but the women in the story are still interesting and are shown to have their own lives and interests beyond what the hero wants and needs from them.

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