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Creating Characters with Links to Your Theme

Theme gets overlooked a lot, and I entirely blame the educational system and English classes destroying books like they hold the secrets of the Illuminati for it.

Maybe I’m bitter because I like Shakespeare and overthinking theme and everyone I know who went to school with me looks at me funny. It may have been because we were sixteen and our English teacher put on Romeo + Juliet but forgot about the sex scene featuring nipples.

Yeah, hilarious. But she left it running, and now I still argue that that play was a tragedy. Predominant argument is “He didn’t write romances, he wrote comedies, histories and tragedies. And they die because there was a distinct lack of communication. They didn’t die in the comedies, they lived happily ever after.

But we’re not talking about Shakespeare’s motives, we’re talking about how characters are the ones who drive the theme.

Think about it. Plot is the steps your characters take to achieve their goals. The theme is the message you want your story to tell. Characters are the people you use to do it all.

Okay, so we’ll stick with Shakespeare. If only for illustration purposes.

A common “theme”, if you like, for Shakespeare’s plays are listen to the women. I’m not making this up. Comedies have the men listening to the women and all ends well (read: All’s Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest). Tragedies have the men ignoring the women and then they die (read: Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth).

Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling has said, is about death. And I can kind of see it. Voldemort kills to overcome it. Harry walks to it and survives it. But now I’m overthinking, and so I’ll move on.

The Great Gatsby. The theme is corruption is a gilded cage. I read the book and found that Nick (other than pining over Gatsby himself) observed that while the glamourous world of the rich was something we all desire, it often hides the corruption that leads to it.

Main Characters in Theme

When I create a main character, I often think of them as a coin. I start with the protagonist and the antagonist and think of the story I want to tell. The character arc often says a lot about the character I’m creating.

Snake

The villain of the story might be the other side of the hero’s coin. Perhaps one of them has to work hard to achieve a goal, and the other is rewarded for very little effort. The theme here would be recognition, and I’d have both of my main characters illustrate different parts of the overall whole throughout the story.

The way your main characters express themselves off this theme is the social comment you’re making (and what they’ll be teaching in high schools once you’re on the New York Times bestseller list). In The Great Gatsby, Nick’s naïve as he views the glitz and glamour of New York life, and this naivety is contrasted with the way Gatsby and Daisy easily navigate their way around the high-end Jazz Age and the corrupt actions they take to achieve their own goals.

This is what makes the talking point of your novel, don’t skip out on linking your characters to facets of your main theme because you think it’s not relevant. Everything is relevant.

Start with a question you want answered, and have your protagonist and antagonist represent the different answers to this question. In my example, the overall question might be What would you do to be recognised? And my protagonist could pose the question How far is too far to gain recognition? While the antagonist asks For how long can I get away with riding the success of someone who’s done all the work?

Without characters, your story wouldn’t exist. Here’s how to tie together your character’s actions and beliefs to the story you want to tell. Click To Tweet

Minor Characters in Theme

Not many people can stand by and accept flat characters, even if they only come on for a few minutes of screen time and are never seen again.

K.M. Weiland said to think of your minor characters as the shards of a shattered mirror. The largest is your protagonist, the next largest is your antagonist. The other pieces all show different pieces of the picture reflecting something about the theme.

Your characters all say something about the theme, even if they just start a pub brawl. Your more prominent characters should ask some variant of your “thematic question”, such as “For how long can I stand by and watch a crime?” or “What is the price for failure?”

Some people change, some don’t. So too should your characters. Some characters will blindly stick by the protagonist’s initial beliefs, some will stick with the antagonist. Some will change from one to the other. Use these characters to show how the hero and villain change people’s beliefs, or how they don’t.

Consider how your characters can tighten the theme of your own story by their beliefs and links to other characters.

The Actions Your Characters Take

Every action your characters take determine the plot, and determine how you express the theme.

Are you scared yet?

The best way to think about this is with a character arc.

For example, Star Wars Episodes I-III. Every step Anakin Skywalker took determined how he became Darth Vader. Palpatine’s every move influenced the decisions Anakin took to become Vader. Every time the Jedi Council told Anakin to be a pawn for their agenda pushed Anakin closer to becoming Darth Vader.

Is that clear? Let me try another example.

I’ll overthink Harry Potter. The first proper interaction Harry had with the Wizarding World was the letters. Someone wanted to talk to him. Then he met Hagrid, who rescued him from the Dursleys and gave a simplified “Gryffindors are good and Slytherins are evil” speech. Then Harry met Malfoy, who was a pretentious idiot and wanted to be in Slytherin like his father. The Weasleys helped Harry get on the train, and Ron mentioned evil Slytherins again. Which led to Harry choosing Gryffindor over Slytherin.

Just as the heroes can influence the thoughts of the minor characters, the minor characters can influence the actions the hero take. How do your own character’s actions reflect this?

Piecing It All Together

I think I managed to keep you awake and present for all my rambling points. Just remember that mirror, and that each character must represent some facet of the theme you’ve picked for your story.

This should create conflict between your characters, and drive the plot forward with actions taken as each character goes about their individual goal while helping and/or hindering the protagonist’s plot goal.

Take a moment to plan how this can apply to your story, does each character do something? Does each character ask a question related to your overall theme?

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