Monday, February 7, 2011

Linking Character Arc and Theme – Part 2 (Revisions to my worksheet)

I’ve been working my way through Stan Williams’ book The Moral Premise. This week I finally got to the part where he explains how it’s done.

As I see it, Williams’ concept of a Moral Premise takes theme a step deeper. Theme can be described in one or two words. For example, the theme of Titanic is love. But that’s also the theme of The Notebook, Shrek, and even Lassie Come Home. What makes these movies different is how the theme of love is handled, and that’s where the Moral Premise comes in.

The Moral Premise is the author’s take on how the universe works. In the case of love, it’s the author’s take on how the theme of love works.

Williams gives a formula for how to describe a Moral Premise. It goes like this:

[Vice] leads to [defeat], but
[Virtue] leads to [success].*

Williams gives some of his own examples of how this works, but let’s takes the examples of the love theme I gave above. In Titanic, the Moral Premise would play out as:

Controlling love leads to death, but
Liberating love leads to a fulfilling life.

In Shrek, the Moral Premise is,

Self-loathing leads to loneliness, but
Self-acceptance leads to love.

Same theme, but see how different the approach to love is?

But if you look at both these Moral Premises, you see in them the core of the protagonist’s character journey. The character starts from the position of the vice (being controlled/hating himself) and through the experiences she/he undergoes learns enough to move to the position of the virtue.

Williams points out that the Moral Premise always has two parts. One is the virtue and its consequences; the other is the corresponding vice and its consequences. While in writing a proposal or synopsis, it’s possible to shorten the premise into one part (for example, Titanic’s moral premise could be shortened to “Liberating love leads to a fulfilling life”), ultimately, in developing the structure of a novel or film script, you need to have both. While Williams gives his own reasons for this, for me there’s another reason that’s equally compelling: describing the consequences of the vice, shows the cost of failure. In other words, it makes clear the stakes.

A vice, by the way, doesn't always have to be a vicious trait.  In a comedy or a romance, it could be some character quirk.  For exmaple, in Shrek, Donkey has his own character arc.  His vice is not only that he constantly runs off at the mouth, but that he rattles on with whatever he thinks will please the person he's talking to.  In other words, he's not sincere.  In the end, he changes and tells Shrek what Shrek needs to hear, even though it's not what Shrek wants to hear, "because that's what friends do."  Donkey's own Moral Premise could be described as:
Insincerity leads to loneliness, but
Honesty leads to friendship.
Two weeks ago, in my blog on Tips for Creating a Character Arc, I described the chart that I use. After reading Williams’ book, I now see how I can expand that chart to a deeper level. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
  • Original wrong world view – This is the Vice.
  • How this keeps them apart – This is how the Vice leads to Defeat.
  • Beginning – What does it look like when they’re “doing their thing?” (i.e, practicing the Vice)
  • What happens to force them to do it differently (“Differently” = the Virtue) 
  • They try the different thing and begin to become confident
  • What’s the reward for doing the different thing? (This is the Virtue leads to [temporary or partial] Success)
  • Major setback in doing it differently (because they haven’t applied the Virtue fully or learned it completely)
  • Go back to doing it the old way (which leads to renewed conflict between the hero and heroine and a sense they’ll never get together) (This is a return to the Vice with accelerated or expanded defeat consequences.) 
  • How does this cause them to fail in achieving their non-romance goal? (This is the crisis)(This is the consequences of the Vice).
  • What causes them to take a chance, and do it the new way (This is reapplying the Virtue, only this time with new understanding and awareness.) 
  • Success (this is the climax) (and the consequences of the Virtue)
  • New world view (This is how they’ve changed to incorporate the virtue in other parts of their life and the resulting success in other parts of their life.)
  • How this allows them to get together (dénouement) (In other words, Virtue leads to a happily ever after ending.)
Williams goes into more detail than this, in showing how to fit the Moral Premise into the plot structure. I’ll blog on that next week.

*Location 1784 of my Kindle copy of The Moral Premise by Stanley Williams.


  1. Excellent post. This is exactly what I needed. Character arc is a little difficult for me, but this is very clear.

  2. Interesting. Clear, yes; problem is how do I apply it to my current writing? (Practicing the vice sounded intriguing!)

  3. I've FINALLY gotten to Part 2 of Williams' book, where he explains in 8 Steps how to do it. I'll post more on this topic as I figure it out.

  4. I've never heard of this book before, but wow, what an incrediably helpful thing - this moral premise, the vice and its consequences and the virtue... thanks! I'm bookmarking this! Glad I found you from Victoria's blog!