Monday, January 31, 2011

Character Arc and Theme

I’m currently reading Stan William’s The Moral Premise on my new Kindle (Phil’s Christmas present to me.) It’s a book that was recommended by veteran literary agent Natasha Kern at the 2009 RWA conference, and thanks to Kindle, finally accessible to me in New Zealand at an affordable price. (I’ve already blogged on the ridiculous price of books here in New Zealand.)

The Moral Premise is about the core of every book: its theme. Actually, Williams says the Moral Premise goes beyond theme to the message the writer wants the reader to carry away with them about how the universe works. I’m only a third of the way through the book, so I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of William’s ideas. But, as I plot out my new novel, it seems to have come into my hands at just the right moment.

When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.

Williams is writing for filmscript writers, but his work, he assures us, is equally applicable to novelists. He has a totally different approach to planning your book. According to Williams, the first thing a writer needs to think about is what message he/she wants the audience to come away with in the end.

Every scene, then, becomes one more piece of evidence that draws the audience to the author’s inevitable conclusion. I’m not talking just about mysteries, and their ilk. According to Williams, the same process works for every genre.

Take the movie, Titanic. Its message is “True love frees you to be yourself.” When we first see Rose, she is being forced into a marriage she deplores in order to save the family fortune. But beyond that, she is forced to live by a code that is uncomfortable and restricting. We see the effect on her when she almost commits suicide and realize solving this problem is a matter of life and death. (Evidence No. 1). When Jack comes along and shows her a new way of life, she throws herself into it. Her dancing on the table – on her toes in bare feet – shows us she is ready for that life. (Evidence No. 2) But there’s also other bits of evidence thrown in – the art pieces in the cabin, which are the early works of then unknown but now great artists. It shows us that she can see and appreciate things her rich peers can’t. (Evidence 3.) And so on. By the end, she is so changed that when the survivors are picked up by the rescue ship, she chooses to stay on the lower deck among the lower class passengers, rather than take advantage of the comforts she could enjoy if she admitted to others who she is (one of the final pieces of evidence.) And the final pan across the photos in old Rose’s cabin is the last piece of evidence that shows Jack’s love has changed her so much she had the courage to live out her dreams.

Williams says this message has to be universal and credible. Universal means it must appeal to all, no matter what nationality. Well, Titanic came out the year Phil and I went to China to teach English. My students there were as crazy about the movie as young people in the US. Why? Because life-changing love is a universal theme. The idea goes beyond the circumstances of a rich girl and a poor boy on a doomed ship and hits something deep inside of us. Everyone dreams of experiencing that kind of love.

The theme lifts the story beyond its time and place and circumstances and puts it into a plane to which we can all relate.

The “credible” part of the author’s message has to do with how the story is constructed. I haven’t gotten far enough into William’s book to verify this, but it looks like he says this begins with characterization. The characters are the core of your evidence. It is their experience within the book and the internal change they undergo that proves your message.

So character and theme are inexorably linked. In planning Me and the Alpha Jerk, I need to start with considering  
  • what message do I want my readers to come away with,
  • what kind of change(s) are possible to come to that conclusions (there are many possible ones, which is why there can be so many novels about the same theme), and
  • what kind of characters would/could undergo that kind of change?
A couple of weeks ago, when I blogged on "Tips for Developing a Character Arc", one of the first points I suggested defining was the character’s mistaken or faulty world view. As I think about theme, I see that the mistaken world view needs to somehow be linked to the theme. This is the character’s starting point. But unless the character starts from a point that can lead them to the conclusion I want, the story isn’t going to have what Williams calls credibility.

So I’m back to looking at the character arc with fresh eyes and seeing how it relates to a theme.


  1. yeah, I think this is the key to a Great book, instead of just a quick, beach book. It's also part of the author's voice, in my opinion. You, as author, ought to have something to say - some opinion about the world. And it comes through with the story as the vehicle.

  2. Hey Vicky!
    I have that book and I am planning to read it next, as I have a proposal to prepare for a particular agent who happens to love that book but her name shall remain anonymous. :) Hint: she often suggests it.

    Thanks for the invite to come over and look. You always have great content and I don't visit often enough.

  3. Thanks Claudia and Debra for your comments. I'm really impressed by what I've read so far of The Moral Premise. Williams not only has his own ideas about the topic, but he also analyzes and refers to other top how-to writers -- people I have in my own library. It's inspiring me to go back and take a second look at them, as well.

  4. Wow. Great insight. Now I have to go back to Jie and probably Aiyu and see if I've done this! LOL Thanks!