You’ve heard it before: Characters acting as mouthpieces for ideas read like stick figures. Yet character and theme interconnect at the deepest root. Use theme to understand characters better and you complicate plot. Use the fate of your characters to illustrate theme and you needn’t state it. You can build story from either direction.
Dilemma. Start with an event that closes off protagonist options and emphasizes theme. In Kim Edwards’ “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” a doctor hopes to protect his wife by institutionalizing their newborn daughter, who isn’t “normal.” This event instigates a journey revealing the themes of love, memory, selfishness, humanity, and forgiveness.
Tip: Your first event should force characters to cope with the difficulty of living out your theme (instead of just idealizing it).
Backstory. “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach is less about baseball than the game of life. Pella plays this game poorly because her closeted dad unwittingly deprived her of the self-reliance a bright, talented, and beautiful teen would otherwise develop. Her bad choices arise from lessons she must unlearn and habits she must break.
Tip: Backstory adds if it clarifies character motivation and advances plot.
Climax. Ideally, the culmination of your plot dramatizes your theme. In Ian McEwan’s “Saturday,” the novel’s hero is literature itself, or Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” to be specific. In a clever twist I won’t reveal, poetry rescues a family from theft, rape, and possibly murder. An ironic sort of hope saves or at least elevates everyone, including the “bad guys.”
Tip: Make the resolution of your plot signal your theme. This eliminates the temptation to insert a “And now, dear reader…” passage in your last few pages.
Intertwine plot and theme to build an organic novel: Better plot, deeper characters, more convincing themes.