Playing the “theme” game

August 5, 2012

What is the theme of your novel?

The question strikes terror in the hearts of writers everywhere. “Why does my novel have to have a theme?”

Steady, now. You need to hear this. Theme is the underlying message your novel conveys. It’s the survival wisdom that we all instinctively seek when we seek stories.

You need theme. As an author, you can’t leave it out. Fiction without a theme, or with a confused theme that can’t be extracted from the muck, leaves us cold. Such stories are forgettable, at best. Theme is the marrow of the story, and we hunger for it.

Don’t believe me? You think that a theme in a story makes it a ham-handed morality tale? Okay, let’s look at a work that — I would say — lacks a discernible theme.

Limitless is a movie with a great science-fiction premise: a pill that makes you a genius (and who wouldn’t want to be a genius?).

Giving characters exactly what they think they want is a great way to create thematically powerful work. The trailer looks like this is a movie that will really “say” something, doesn’t it?

But it doesn’t. The main character takes the pills, becomes a genius… and spends the rest of the movie trying to elude baddies and find more pills. He succeeds in the end. Because the pills helped him. He’s not even an especially good guy.

The end.

So what’s the point? There is no point. There was no inner trait or value that the guy possessed that enabled him to succeed. There’s no lesson, no survival wisdom, that I can take away. The film is entertaining in parts, but by the end, I felt like I’d only seen the surface of something hollow.

Good news

There’s no excuse for leaving theme unaddressed in your writing, because theme is easy.

It’s practically a game. Once you’ve finished reading the book or watching the movie (or writing your draft), just ask two questions:

1) Who won?

(Did the main character triumph? Or not so much? In a thriller or horror work, the winners are probably the characters who are still standing. In a romance, if the couple finally gets together, they win.)

2) Why?

(That is: what trait, characteristic, moral value, or skill did the winners possess that enabled them to win?)

(I adapted these two questions from questions asked by Robert McKee about “controlling idea” in his master work STORY. He used a lot more words.)

The answers to these two questions constitute the theme of your work. Let’s see some examples.

Dawn of the Dead (2004): Who would think a zombie movie could have such a powerful theme? Everyone who clings to old affections, romantic or familial, dies in this movie. The only survivors make it to the end credits by heartlessly weeding the bitten out of their ranks, and showing no mercy. The obvious theme: To survive, we must be ruthless.

(Interestingly, the survivors are all killed off in segments blended into the final credits, so that ice-cold, razor-sharp theme is sadly erased.)

Side note: Themes need not be nice. They just need to be there. (Imagine that I wrote a long, long essay about the moral value of art and the importance of artistic freedom and posted it about here.)

In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, a much-loved, yet still underrated, film), Indiana Jones and Marion survive to the end because he chooses to abandon pursuit of the Ark, and protects her instead. Theme: Our survival depends not on chasing the quest, but on caring for each other.

Side note: Themes need not be nice… but they can be.

In The Hunger Games (the book; I missed the movie), Katniss and Peeta survive not because Katniss is such a badass, but because she learned to express her affection for him, persuading the audience to spare them both. Theme: Our survival depends not on skills, weapons, or brutality, but on having the courage to express our deepest emotions.


Yeah, really! Why do you think the book is so popular?

Themes can be negative, or cautionary, too. Especially if nobody gets out of the story alive.

Ishmael is the only survivor of Moby Dick, but I’d say that’s because he’s the POV character and Melville didn’t know how to kill him off. Captain Ahab’s pursuit of that whale led to the death of his entire crew, creating a theme we all know: Obsession can destroy you and everyone around you.

Romeo & Juliet don’t make it out alive, because of the feud between their families. This is another easy one: The need for revenge can claim that which you value most.

Or: Vendetta is pernicious.

Or even: Get over your grudge, or somebody innocent may have to pay.

The wording matters less than the sentiment. The sentiment always comes through, though, once you answer the two questions.

Theme is one of the most surprising elements of fiction, and the theme game is addicting. And just wait until you ask those two little questions about your own work!

1) Who won?

2) Why?

Character Complexity (and Slaying Vampires)

July 28, 2009

We all agree that complex characters are good. Where we writers screw up is the damn challenge of creating them.

Say you’re beginning to think about a character. How do you add complexity? Or have you botched it already? Is complexity at a character’s core, where the creative process of the writer begins?

Here’s what complexity isn’t.

It’s not a list of traits. “Here’s my character = job + hobbies + height/weight/eyes/hair + family + place of birth + romantic relationships + …”

Details don’t make a character complex. Neither does the presence of a single all-powerful motive or all-consuming characteristic. “Ruthlessness” maybe, or “lust for power.”

No – that character would be 100% predictable and 100% dull.

Here’s a picture of character complexity for you:

Yin Yang symbol

That’s the yin-yang symbol. Yin and yang are opposite forces, like light and shade, or male and female, coming together. I’m not going to get more into the religious meaning than that – but I am going to borrow this thing to remind me about character.

A complex character is a balance of opposite characteristics or identities. My all-time favorite example is (don’t laugh)… Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer.

Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon dreamed up the character – a school girl (that’s one characteristic) who slays vampires (that’s the other). Now stop and think about it.

That’s the character. Nothing else. But that idea drove a movie, then seven seasons of a television show, followed by an eighth “season” in comic book form… and writers aren’t finished with her yet.

Buffy will sweat over her history homework… then drop her pencil and battle a nest of vampires. She’ll save the world from a soul-eating demon, then she’ll worry about senior prom. These reversals always come as a surprise – the audience never gets used to them.

It sounds ridiculous… and it is. Buffy’s yin-yang drives, essentially, all the humor of the TV show (and if you haven’t seen it… it’s funny).

Buffy, The Long Way Home

But a character’s yin-yang complexity isn’t just for laughs and witty reversals. Fans of Buffy know how tortured she is – you see, she wants to be a school girl, she yearns for a normal life, she hates the crypts and the undead gore… but she also knows she’s chosen to be an epic warrior, blessed with strength and speed and the power to save people’s lives.

Spider-Man 2
It’s the same inner conflict Peter Parker struggles with in Spider-Man 2 – hero vs. normal guy.

After humor and surprising reversals, this intense agony of inner conflict is the other gift of a yin-yang nature.

These sorts of characters are fascinating to us.

Darth Vader is a black-suited, faceless villain (worth hating, but not thinking about) until he reveals that he’s Luke’s father… and gains complexity (heartless villain vs. compassionate father). And that inner conflict needs a whole third movie (Return of the Jedi) to play itself out.

And Luke (farm boy vs. Jedi)? And Harry Potter (orphan vs. wizard)?

Shakespeare, Chicago
Let’s stop screwing around: Shakespeare’s character MacBeth’s yin-yang is pure ambition vs. guilt – that drives the whole Scottish play.

This last example comes from Robert McKee in Story. “MacBeth is a brilliantly realized character,” McKee says, “because of the contradiction between his ambition on one hand and his guilt on the other. From this profound inner contradiction springs his passion, his complexity, his poetry.”

McKee’s word for the complexity of a character is “dimension,” as in “three-dimensional character.” He says it right out: “Dimension means contradiction.”

I’m going to cite one more example from McKee to wrap up this post.


“Consider Hamlet, the most complex character ever written… He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To Ophelia he’s first loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash, as he stabs someone behind a curtain without knowing who’s there. Hamlet is ruthless and compassionate, proud and self-pitying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, sane and mad. His is an innocent worldliness, a worldly innocence, a living contradiction of almost any human qualities we could imagine.”

(Does this remind anyone of Holden Caulfield?)