use theme to create character arc header

5 Ways to Use Theme to Create Character Arc (and Vice Versa)

use theme to create character arcWhat’s the easiest way to find your story’s theme—and make it stick? Although any discussion of theme is multi-faceted, one of the best ways to approach this complex topic is through the realization that you can use theme to create character arc—and vice versa.

When asked to explain what a particular story is about, some people may respond with a plot answer: “It’s about the end of the world.”

Others may even respond with a theme answer: “It’s about whether it’s morally acceptable to save a few at the cost of the many.”

But implicit within either answer is character.

Indeed, the third possible answer is, of course, straight-up about the characters: “It’s about astronauts.”

The end of the world and its incumbent moral quandaries are hardly interesting unless people are involved. (Or at least anthropomorphic entities. Watership Down, after all, is an extremely engaging apocalypse.)

Identifying Your Story’s Text, Context, and Subtext

So am I saying story is really character? ‘Cause a couple weeks ago, I said story is really theme. So… what gives?

If theme is a story’s soul and plot is its mind, then character is its heart. Character is always and ever the life force of story. But what is life without meaning? Even in stories that wish to posit the meaning of life is there is no meaning, that’s still a meaning. That’s still a theme.

The bottom line is you can’t have a proper story without people (characters) doing stuff (plot)—the very highlighting of which inevitably comments upon reality (theme).

Together, this trinity of storytelling mutually generates the text, context, and subtext.

The outer conflict, represented by plot, exists on the story’s exterior and most visual level. This is the text.

The inner conflict, represented by character arc, exists on the story’s interior level. This is the context. It provides the first layer of commentary on the plot’s events. When viewed through the differing context of different characters’ inner struggles, a plot’s text can take on many different meanings.

Finally, the story’s theme nestles in the center of the Venn. It may never be seen; it may never be explicitly spoken of or referenced. But even silent, it creates the subtext. Depending on how the other two elements are presented, this subtext may either cohesively support or ironically juxtapose the story’s text and context.

Plot + Character = Theme Infographic

In short, it would seem the character’s personal relationship with the plot events is what creates the thematic subtext. This is 100% true. But if viewed from another vantage, it becomes clear that an aware author can also shape the story in the opposite direction by consciously using theme to create character arc.

5 Steps to Use Theme to Create Character Arc

Effective character arcs are inherently related to thematic presentation. This means all discussions of character arc are really discussions of theme. Character arc is, in itself, a deep and complex subject, which I’ve explored in many other posts and, of course, my book Creating Character Arcs (and its companion workbook). For the sake of expediency, today’s post assumes a basic understanding of character-arc principles, but if you want more info, check out the preceding links.

Today, I want to talk specifically about how theme creates character arc and/or character arc creates theme (depending which end the author tugs first). I’m necessarily talking about each of these aspects in partial isolation. Two weeks ago, we talked about how to identify your thematic premise; next week, we’ll talk about manifesting theme in the outer conflict of your story’s plot. But don’t forget that each is part of the larger symbiosis.

None of these three elements—theme, character, and plot—is created in isolation. Instead, the author must employ what I call the “bob and weave.” If you have a notion about what you want your theme to be, you might start by investigating how that could play out in the plot, which might prompt you to start developing suitable characters, which might bring you back to questions of plot—and on and on, back and forth, back and forth. For every little bit you develop theme, you must develop character and plot apace.

So how can you use theme to create character arc? And how can you use your character’s arc to help you identify and solidify your theme? Following is a five-part checklist that will help you identify the thematic pieces already at play and then use them to generate further ideas that will harmonize your story into a single unified idea.

1. The Thematic Premise’s Explicit Argument

As we talked about in this post, the essence of your theme will be summed up in its thematic premise. There are many ways, this premise might be expressed—everything from a single word to a fully-realized sentence. When using the thematic premise to develop character arc, the central tenet you’re most interested in is its argument.

Implicit within even the most amoral thematic premise will be a central question. That question is going to produce the heart of your protagonist’s character arc. This is the question that will drive his quest throughout the story. The answer may end up being explicit (as with Dorothy Gale’s “there’s no place like home”), or it may be deeply implicit (as we talked about previously with The Great Escape‘s “the human spirit is indomitable”). Either way, the search for this answer will define your protagonist’s inner conflict.

The Great Escape John Sturges James Garner Judd Taylor Steve McQueen

For Example:

  • In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the thematic premise’s argument might be turned into the question: “What determines the worth of a life?”
  • In Charles Portis’s True Grit, the thematic premise’s argument might be turned into the question: “Is justice a personal responsibility?”
  • In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, the thematic premise’s argument might be turned into the question: “Does defense of one’s family justify all means?”

2. Inner Conflict, Pt. 1: Lie vs. Truth

A story’s theme is a posited Truth about life. This Truth may be inherently moral (“what does it mean to be a good person?”), or it may be existential (“what is life all about?”). Either way, the story will indicate that a certain Truth is, indeed, true.

Necessarily, where there is a proposed Truth, there must also be opposing un-truths—or Lies. And how does a story explore these Truths and Lies? Not, your readers sincerely hope, through lengthy, sermon-y exposition, in which they are told what’s what and what’s not. Rather, readers want to be shown. They want to see your proposed Truth acted out in a realistic simulation. Whether the proposed Truth can hold up under stressful reality will be “proven” (or disproven) by how well that Truth and its opposing Lies serve your character over the course of the story.

Your story’s outer conflict will deal with outer antagonists—people and situations that throw up obstacles between the protagonist and the larger story goal. The inner conflict, however, is ultimately a battleground of the mind, heart, and soul.

No matter what type of arc you’re using (Positive Change, Flat, or Negative Change), the story’s central Truth will be the crucial piece needed for the characters to achieve positive ends within their quests. If they resolve their inner conflicts by embracing the Truth, the outer conflict will follow suit. If they cling to the Lie and prove unable to embrace the Truth, their external pursuits will end in, at best, hollow victories.

For Example:

  • In A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge overcomes his Lie that “the worth of a life is measured in money” and embraces the Truth that “the worth of a life is measured in charity and goodwill.”

Christmas Carol Ghost of Christmas Past Ebenezer Scrooge Feast McDuck Disney

  • In True Grit, Mattie Ross’s steadfast Truth that “a careless attitude about justice will create social anarchy” creates measurable change in the world and characters around her.
  • In The Godfather, Michael Corleone ends by embracing the Lie that “corruption and violence are a justified means to an end.”

3. Inner Conflict, Pt. 2: Want vs. Need

If we climb up another rung on the story ladder from Abstract Theme toward Concrete Plot, we find the next level in your character arc’s development. The story’s central inner conflict between Lie/Truth will translate directly into the character’s Want/Need.

The Lie is rooted in or is the catalyst for one of the character’s central Wants. In Change Arcs, this Lie-driven Want will probably directly influence the character’s plot goal. In a Flat Arc, the protagonist will already believe in the story’s Truth, but will have to contend with the Wants of other characters whose adherence to the central Lie will create external obstacles.

At its broadest, the Need is always the Truth. What any Lie-believing character Needs is the Truth. But, like the Want, the Need will often translate into a literal object, person, or state within the external plot.

For Example:

  • In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge Wants to “make as much money as possible.” What he Needs is the love of his fellow human beings.
  • In True Grit, Mattie’s Want of “bringing her father’s killer to justice” is in alignment with the Need of the world around her, but is obstructed by the moral apathy of the lawmen she hires to help her.

True Grit 1969 John Wayne Glenn Campbell Kim Darby Little Blackie

  • In The Godfather, Michael Wants to protect his criminal family. What he Needs is to leave the life of crime behind him.

4. Inner Conflict Becoming Outer Conflict

Your character’s inner conflict cannot exist in a vacuum. The inner conflict must be caused by and, in turn, must cause the outer conflict. This is a direct development of the Want/Need. In order to bring all of the Big Three—theme, character, and plot—into alignment, the Lie/Truth must be expressed as the Want/Need.

Depending on the nature of your story and the type of arc you’ve chosen for your characters, they will likely be forced to choose between what they Want and what they Need. This will be the externalized metaphor that proves the corresponding choice between the theme’s Lie and Truth. Readers will never need to be hit over the head with a “moral of the story” when they can be shown a character’s wrenching choice between two concrete objects, people, or states of being.

This decision should never come easily. If the posited “right” choice is obviously better than the “wrong” choice, the thematic argument will lack teeth. If the right choice is easy, why should the character need to experience any inner conflict at all? This is why the argument between Lie and Truth must truly be an argument. If a Truth that posits “murderers are evil” is opposed by the simplistic Lie that “murderers are good”—there is no argument. But if the Lie is complex enough to allow the author to explore why, for instance, a defense lawyer might truly believe her psychopathic client deserves not to be punished—then suddenly, you have an interesting premise that can be played out in the external conflict with extremely high stakes.

For Example:

  • In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge must choose between facing the monumental weight of his wasted life or going to his grave unperturbed.
  • In True Grit, Mattie must choose between pursuing her father’s killer and her own safety.
  • In The Godfather, Michael must choose between living a righteous life or protecting his family by any means.

Godfather Al Pacino Christening

5. Change Within the Character, Change Within the Plot

The surest way to check whether your theme is in harmony with your characters (and, therefore, your plot) is to hone in on what changes within your story. How are the characters—particularly the protagonist—different at the end of the story from how they were at the beginning? If there are no changes, then the storyform will be fundamentally problematic.

Another problem may arise when the character changes, but not in alignment with the thematic premise. This is a sign of a disconnect at some point in the story. Even if you’ve attempted to paste a different theme over the top, what your story is really about is always rooted in the change that occurs in your characters and their world.

When we see theme fully integrated with other story elements, that theme will always be an active force, either working change upon the protagonist or worked by him upon other characters.

For Example:

  • In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge changes from a miser in the story’s beginning to a repentant, joyous, and charitable man in the end.
  • In True Grit, Mattie has wrought change upon the world around her, bringing an end to her father’s murderer and the outlaw gang he ran with, as well as inspiring actions in the complacent and self-serving lives of the lawmen she encountered on her journey.
  • In The Godfather, Michael changes from a clean-cut young war hero with a legitimate career to a ruthless mafia don.

***

When theme is a message imposed upon a story, the result often feels disconnected or even heavy-handed. But when the author works with the theme via the characters, the story’s Truth will arise beautifully and powerfully as part of an organic whole. Try it out!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever tried to use theme to create character arcs—or vice versa? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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.

Comments

  1. Excellent article, K.M.

  2. Claudia Campbell says

    Theme was always a mysterious “thing” that I knew was important to a story, but had no clue how to incorporate it in a story. You have taken the mystery out of the whole idea of theme and made it not only understandable, but purposefully doable. All great stories have a great theme, and we all want to write great stories. Thank you!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I have come to believe that the key to mastering writing is to solve the mysteries–and then put them right back into the process. I have a process for understanding and implementing theme, but it’s still a mystery to me too in some ways. I like that about it. 🙂

  3. I like what you write. It helps me to wrestle with the elements of a good story. After a day as a teacher wrestling with colleagues in planning and bumbling around and grappling I really would much prefer to be writing stories. I’m such a beginner in all of this after 70 years (x 365) of travelling around the sun. I suppose it is never to late to start. Thanks once again for your writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Never too late. You’re an inspiration!

    • Sally M. Chetwynd says

      Like K.M. says, Never Too Late! If there is a story inside you that is bursting to come out, let it! Write, write, write! It’ll look like junk at first (rough drafts always do), but if you don’t let it out and get it out, then you have nothing to polish. There’s ALWAYS a gem hidden within that junk.

  4. My theme and characters usually come package deal when I work on a new idea. I think if characters are the heart of a story, then theme is the heart of characters. For me the hardest part is making sure the plot is the best crucible.

    It’s so helpful to have a more conscious idea of how the Big Three aspects of story work together. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I think if characters are the heart of a story, then theme is the heart of characters.”

      Beautifully said!

  5. Usvaldo de Leon says

    I was watching Lord of War with Nic Cage. I like the film and it has a great penultimate scene, but reading this piece today makes me realize what the story is missing. The character is on a flat arc but there is no argument. It’s like a sports autobiography- this year I hit .368 and that year I hit .393 and then I got traded – it is recounting events without trying to justify or invalidate the theme which is like “war is bad but war profiteering is worse”. It assumes we know war is bad and doesn’t bother to make that case.

    Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haven’t seen the movie, but that’s a great illustration of a common problem with stories that “phone it in.” They assume readers/viewers will inherently agree with the premise, so don’t bother to comment on it. Many a mediocre story could have had a shot at greatness if only its writer had gone one step farther with the thematic argument.

  6. Casandra Merritt says

    You don’t say. I was just pondering this a few weeks ago, about “simplistic” Lies. I knew what my Truth was, but it wasn’t as easy to find a lie that was the direct opposite of it. It’s not always going to be as simple as “good is stronger than evil.”

    • Sally M. Chetwynd says

      I wonder, when we can’t find the Lie, if we aren’t hiding it from ourselves, because it takes work to drag it into the light. I certainly found this to be true when working on my recently released second novel. The hardest writing I have ever done, but the challenge was well worth the work. I learned invaluable lessons, not only about the story and its characters and the craft, but also about myself.

      I found a quote recently that speaks powerfully, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” Robert Frost

      A good reminder of how we must invest ourselves in writing our stories – otherwise, why should our readers invest themselves in reading our stories?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Dragging Lies into the light is difficult in our own lives, so it makes sense it might be difficult in writing as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As I talked about in this post, the Truth will often be opposed by an evolving succession of Lies.

  7. Anton Teichmann says

    This ist the best article about Theme I’ve red so far.
    I have to rewrite my story…

    But here comes the question!
    What is about characters that have no character arc or change like for example, James Bond. He’s that steadfast character that I think does not change at all with one exception in “Quantum of Solace”.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very often genres that focus heavily on the external genre won’t feature much, if any, of a character arc. However, protagonists who themselves don’t change can sometimes be demonstrating a Flat Arc, in which they remain steadfast in a Truth that impacts and changes the characters around them.

      See these posts:

      How to Write a Flat Character Arc
      What if Your Story Has No Character Arc?

      • Anton Teichmann says

        Thanks for the reply.
        Great articles as well. Indeed, exactly what I was searching for to finish my short film script. I’ve always searched for an arc for my protagonist, but now I think, there is no arc… and I’m fine with it.

    • I like to say that the main character comes to the story to either learn or teach a lesson.

      While one character represents the lie, another (sometimes more) represents the truth. With the flat arc, the usual roles are flipped and the main character is trying to convince someone (sometimes everyone) the truth only he can see.

      With flat arc stories the question is not “what is the truth and how do you make it work”, but it’s more like “how far are you willing to go, what price are you willing to pay” or “what are you willing to sacrifice for this truth?”

  8. I love this article, but I am having difficulty distinguishing between the External Conflict and the Outer Problem (referring to the Venn diagram above). I’ve searched your website, but the terms seem to be used interchangeably. Can you help clarify this for me? Is Outer Problem something macro while External Conflict is more micro/immediate? For example, in “Star Wars” is the Outer Problem the macro problem between the Empire and the Rebellion while the External Conflict varies from scene to scene? Or do I have these reversed?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      They’re basically the same thing. The “outer problem” is a general reference to what is creating the external conflict, in which the protagonist’s pursuit of his goal is being met by obstacles he must overcome.

  9. I seem to start with a premise which contains a theme and implies a character arc. These elements of story were always fairly intuitive to me.

    I don’t want to tell the premise of my latest work because it would be a bit of a spoiler, but the primary theme is explicit when in a dream, Jesus instructs the main character, “Sometimes we must suffer if we are to save souls.” There are related themes at play, as well, that drive the actions of other characters.

    This story, When the Wood Is Dry: An Edgy Catholic Thriller, began as a screenplay, and as such, the limited real estate for story-telling focused more on the “Sometimes we must suffer” part of the equation and left only a little room to show the saving of souls. But, in the novel, I managed to explore the impact on other characters more fully, which also made for a much more complex and layered story where the major traumatic events of the story could be seen impacting characters who were so minor in the script as to be unnamed.

    It is the theme that dictated this complex structure and the creation of the many character voices and arcs, and it is not subtle at all. The suffering is extreme, the saving (and losing) of souls is obvious, and the main character making sense of the events hammers home the theme in a way that is completely necessary in order to resolve the story, which has the added benefit of making sure nobody could miss what the story is about. I apologize to the reader in the author notes for hitting them with this sledgehammer at the end, but the character who has suffered so much has to see the impact on others or the theme is not complete.

    I come at writing as someone who has something to say. I don’t understand writing if you don’t know what you want to say. I guess if I were a better writer I might feel I had this great writing skill if only I could figure out how to use it. Not me. I am in a battle to figure out how to say what I want to say, not well-armed and in search of a conflict in which to demonstrate my prowess. And, what I have to say is important enough in this case that a sledgehammer is the proper tool. I feel much as Flannery O’Connor did, that I am talking to the near-deaf and drawing for the near-blind. I need to shout and draw startling figures.

    But there is a danger in focusing on theme. If your characters become abstractions representing concepts, you may end up with something that makes a philosophical point but is not great literature. Think Ayn Rand. Her characters are concepts not people. But then, she sold a lot of books. And, she certainly had something to say. Not something I agree with, but something.

    If you would like check out the first part of my book, the ebook is free on Amazon at least through Easter. The first part, Call of the Innocent, is relatively safe. The second part, Crucifixion, is as bad as it sounds, and the third part, Resurrection, ends relatively happily, but has its share of unpleasantness.

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07P2Q6MJN/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, Ayn Rand preferred an almost conflated view of plot and theme. I do think many of come to fiction with something to say, but many of us also discover *what* it is we have to say in the writing.

  10. Marilyn Carvin says

    Things change as I write. I think I know the theme and the characters, but find as I write the characters run away with the story and I find myself changing what I thought the arc was going to be, which presents new aspects of theme, and even leaves me questioning what isTruth and what is the Lie? The first draft was done, but in revising all sorts of questions have popped up. The protagonist has come up with secrets I didn’t know about, which enhances his inner conflicts, but leads me to think we need to change his choices at the end. Will I ever finish this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This happens to me too. I see it not so much as the proposed theme or plot changing, but rather my understanding of both deepening as I discover more and more about them. I’m rarely “wrong” about my thematic ideas for books, but I almost always start out very clumsy and broad in my understanding of how they will actually emerge.

  11. Andrewisediting says

    Great post. I think that Venn diagram is the clearest, best explanation of the relationship between external and internal conflict I’ve ever seen, certainly it’s crystallized the concept in my mind.

    Thanks!

  12. Excellent post! You have a brilliant way of explaining things. Saved this to my Kindle, so I can refer back to it.

  13. There is something I thought about character arc. Could we use 2 type of arc in 1 story? (like, the first half is positive change arc, then the other half is flat arc)?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is really tricky to do well. It pretty much only works if the story is divided into distinct episodic plots (as we might see in a generational saga). But usually, trying to jam more than one character arc into the same plot disallows proper development of either.

      • Next question. About argument question, i got confused with the part Truth and Need, because in your previous post (The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs), it said the Need was the Truth itself. So, am I have to make the Need same as the Truth or need to make it differ?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Whether or not the Need is literally the Truth (i.e., the character’s Need is simply to understand the Truth), it should at least be something that represents the Truth (e.g., choosing to adopt a child might represent a Truth about love).

          • Okay. I understand from argument until Want vs Need. But still, I don’t understand at Internal Conflict Becoming Outer Conflict. Cause, I don’t know how to make it.

  14. Austen Adams says

    Love this post! This is a relationship I’ve only recently begun to understand, and I’m trying to use it in one of my WIPs. You explain things so clearly, and it’s such a huge help! Thank you!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.