When you’re writing a story, how often do you think about theme? It’s OK if your answer is, “Not often.” That was mine last year when a friend asked me about themes in my fantasy novel. Fortunately I found a few, but only after paying close attention to the story. Which got me thinking: Even though we shouldn’t force themes into our stories, we should be aware of how we develop them.
That’s the purpose of Developing Themes In Your Stories, a four-part series on consciously nurturing themes in your writing. We’ll look at how themes rise naturally out of different story elements, and give you activities to help you discover your story’s themes as early as the planning stages. That way, you’ll know your themes upfront instead of digging for them later.
We’ll kick off this series with the character arc, one of storytelling’s most inspiring elements.
Start With Your Protagonist
Remember how our working definition of theme ties the protagonist’s internal journey to the external plot? Goals, worries, lessons – writers use these and other details to demonstrate a character’s arc and, therefore, theme. To create that kind of connection in your own work, you need to start with the character.
Before diving into your story, figure out everything you should know about your protagonist. Not just appearance, personality and skills, but also vulnerabilities. What are her fears and flaws? Is she hiding any secrets? Most importantly, how does she see herself and the world? (I’ll explain in the next section why your character’s perceptions are crucial in your search for themes.)
Also consider your protagonist’s past. What was her childhood like? What were some of her happiest, lowest, and most embarrassing moments? Did she experience trauma with her health, family, friendships, etc.?
This prep work might seem tedious, or maybe you’ll find it fun. Regardless, it’s an essential first step in writing a compelling story with powerful themes.
Activity #1: Free-write for 30 minutes about your protagonist. Explore angles of his or her past (childhood, traumatic experiences), present (positive attributes, flaws, perceptions), and future (goals, desires). If you need a starting point, check out these suggestions from Writer’s Digest and Writer Unboxed as well as this character traits and flaws online thesaurus at Writers Helping Writers.
Probe for False Beliefs
Here’s why it’s important to know your protagonist’s vulnerabilities, especially her perceptions: Most characters carry “false beliefs,” or untruths that the character has been conditioned to believe are true about herself or the world. As Angela Ackerman explains here, false beliefs often rise out of traumatic experiences or emotional wounds. They can then taint a character’s worldview and cause her to change her behavior so she can avoid being hurt in the same way again.
This applies to real people as well as fictional characters. We all suffer from false beliefs, or have suffered from them in the past. We might think we’re unlovable, deserving of our pain, or that people can’t be trusted; and we hold onto those lies for years, even decades.
Despite our warped perceptions, other people usually don’t see us the way we see ourselves. Likewise, you probably won’t share your protagonist’s false beliefs about herself or the world. In fact, you might have already known that her warped perceptions are untrue. Keep that in mind for this next activity, and as this article continues.
Activity #2: Create a four-column table on a new page or document, and label the first column as “False Belief(s).” Using the free-writing exercise from Activity #1, write down at least one false belief your character has about herself or the world. You’ll recognize a false belief when you know instinctively that your protagonist is wrong.
Determine Your Character’s Arc and Possible Themes
Now that you know your protagonist’s false beliefs, here’s your challenge as the writer: What if you had a chance to proveyour protagonist wrong and make her change how she thinks about herself? This act of letting go of a false belief is your character’s arc and the source of your story’s themes.
Think about what happens when we let go of untruths or doubts. We’re often changed for the better. Before that can happen, something must cause us to question our false belief. That’s where the journey to letting go of that belief begins.
So, from a thematic standpoint, the character arc should reverse a character’s false belief. If Protagonist A considers herself a poor leader (false belief), she should learn that she actually does have what it takes to lead (reversal / arc). Or, if Protagonist B thinks avenging her friend’s death will bring her peace (false belief), she should instead realize the consequences of her decision (reversal / arc).
And what about theme? Since themes can be lessons learned by the protagonist, we can say that character arc themes are lessons that the character learns when letting go of false beliefs. For example, when Protagonist A realizes she’s a good leader, she discovers more about who she is (identity) and possibly power or courage. When Protagonist B changes her mind about vengeance, she might learn about compassion and choices. All of these concepts are possible themes in each story.
Activity #3: In your four-column table, label the second column as “Reversal / Character Arc” and the third one as “Themes / Lessons Learned.” Then, for each false belief, write down its reversal and any possible themes in their respective columns. If you struggle with themes, ask yourself what you might learn if you experienced the same situation.
Build Your Plot Around a Trigger
I mentioned in the previous section that a significant event often forces us (or our character) to question our false beliefs. This is the “trigger” for your character arc. It occurs early in the story, and can be out of your character’s control (e.g., political / outside circumstances, another character’s decision or actions) or voluntary (e.g., your character’s decision or action). Regardless, the trigger is the catalyst for the journey your character will take where she’ll learn to let go of her false belief.
Let’s imagine possible triggers for Protagonists A and B. If Protagonist A’s false belief is a lack of leadership qualities, maybe she could be assigned to oversee a mission abroad or an espionage operation. If Protagonist B’s false belief is that avenging her friend’s death will bring her peace, maybe she could be forced to work with her friend’s killer. Wouldn’t either arc make an awesome story?
Once you determine the trigger, you can start building the plot. What obstacles or outside forces will your protagonist face? Which supporting characters will help her reach her goal or clash with her? What settings, objects, and other elements will play important roles? Remember that the key is to show your character’s growth from beginning to end. And once you’re ready to start writing, you might be surprised with how well everything knits together – and relieved to know your themes.
How about one last example that shows character arc themes through the steps we’ve discussed? Let’s use Tris Prior from the Divergent Trilogy:
- False Belief: When Divergent begins, Tris views herself as weak.
- Trigger: Tris takes her faction aptitude test and, upon learning she’s a Divergent and isn’t a perfect fit for any faction, chooses to switch from Abnegation to Dauntless.
- Plot / Character Arc: Tris’s initiation into Dauntless tests her physical and emotional strength in numerous ways, yet she passes thanks to her gutsy determination.
- Reversal / Themes: Tris proves to her new faction – and to herself – that she’s stronger than she had realized, which gives her a new sense of identity and personal power.
Activity #4: Label the last column in your table as “Possible Triggers.” Then, using your results from Activities #2 and #3, brainstorm possible triggers that can jump-start your character’s arc. From there, decide which thread of false beliefs, reversals, themes, and triggers you want to explore. Now you’re ready to write!
Character arcs aren’t the only method for developing themes in your work. Come back in June for Part 2 of this series, when we’ll discuss themes that rise out of your story’s premise.
What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.