Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)
It’s easy to forget how inherently connected story aspects are. Characters are defined by their settings (what, after all, would Katniss have been if born in District 2). Plots spin on the wheels of character choices. Mood drips from the parapets of whatever dreary castle you happen to have chosen as setting. So while we often separate the categories in preparation for writing a story, it’s important to weave and analyze the web of how all your story pieces fit together.
I think the same can be said for how we approach theme. Often, we’re quick to hammer theme to the main character, as if that’s our only real avenue for exploring deep truths in a work. But we’re ignoring some of our other tools when we do that. So I want to take a theme I used in my debut novel, Nyxia, and analyze a few ways I think an author can expand on that theme beyond just character interaction. The value, in my opinion, is that the writer can hold up a maxim or idea at the conclusion of their novel that truly demonstrates the lifeblood of their story.
Theme: What aspects of our humanity are lost in the midst of competition, and more specifically as we strive for greatness or life-changing opportunities.
Basic background: My main character is going into space. Emmett will compete with nine other astronauts for the right to a million-dollar contract. And Emmett needs the money. To get his mom at the top of transplant lists. To keep his dad from working night shifts. Winning would change everything about his life.
Methods for Expanding Theme
Key plot points should bring your theme into dramatic climax.
Without getting into spoilers, I specifically designed at least three situations in which Emmett must face the theme directly. He’s given opportunities to advance himself at the expense of someone else, or to punish an offense done to him. Each situation is designed to draw the reader’s attention (and Emmett’s) to the central question. Emmett will either make a decision that strips some core part of who he is, or he will have to put himself at a slight disadvantage to maintain his identity. Those three scenes all force him into deeper questioning and analysis.
Hint: your character doesn’t always have to land on the positive side of your theme. We can learn just as much if Emmett chooses to let some part of his humanity go in favor of winning.
Setting should provide more tension for a given theme.
Emmett’s in space. He is mostly isolated from family, his old life, and his old supports. These absences allow the competition and what is at stake to dominate his mental focus. It’d be much harder to analyze this theme if I had set the story in a typical classroom back on Earth. Not impossible, just more difficult. Something about space—it’s isolation and unknown and size—provides a gorgeous backdrop for analyzing a basic question about humanity. There’s also no escaping from the competition. The scoreboards posted around the ship make sure of that.
Antagonists can and should force the theme upon the protagonist.
The company that’s running the show—Babel Communications—is not shy about putting Emmett and the other contestants in situations that test this theme. And really, the company is motivated to have the best possible candidates working with them. They don’t actually care about the aspects of humanity that get stripped away, so long as they’re getting the most qualified and talented team to take down to a foreign planet.
Internal monologue should graze the core truths you’re presenting.
You do not have to set us up like a Paideia teacher. The point is not to present some moral question like it’s an essay topic on the next test. The classic “show don’t tell” rule is great, but in terms of theme, I think the idea is to show and then at least tell a little. There are several moments when Emmett sets his fingers on the pulse of what’s going on inside of him. He does not lack intelligence. He’s sharp enough to understand that there are two forces raging against one another, and that he can become two very different people depending on those choices. I don’t just come out and say, “I’m wrestling with what it means to be human!” But I regularly have Emmett tracing how one choice will lead down a very specific road.
It’s offensive to your character if they never consider the ultimate theme or deeper questions. Often, such a character can come off as either naïve or unaware. But it’s also offensive to your reader if you bluntly smack them in the face with a moral lesson. There’s a middle ground, and it’s worth exploring.
Side characters should offer both comparison and contrast.
Remember the part about the nine other astronauts Emmett’s competing with? Well, they’re people, too. They’re wrestling with this concept, too. And their varied experiences of it were an opportunity to answer the theme in a number of different ways.
I have one character who’s super competitive. He’s never overtly inhumane to the others, but he does ignore them in favor of focusing on competition. What does he lose? Connection and relationship. What does he gain? Great scores.
That character’s methods are relatively noble (he’s just working really hard). Other characters attempt to gain footholds in the competition through more devious means. Some are willing to harm, even kill to gain ground. I have one character who has a kindness so deeply-rooted in who they are that Babel’s competition can’t touch it. One character feels she’s already lost her humanity, so why try and hold on to what she never had in the first place?
See how fertile this ground is? As Emmett brushes against these other stories and realities, who he is and what he does and what he’s becoming should be even more apparent to the reader.
Those are just a few methods for expanding your theme across a story. It’s at least worth looking back at a novel or short story you’re working on and trying to gauge this one question:
Is your theme sprinkled on top or is it infused in the story? If you can take out one scene or one character and the theme suddenly vanishes, it might be worth examining how you can actually weave the question your wrestling with more deeply into the work. In my mind, it’s these deeply-rooted novels that stick with us over the years. Best of luck as you go back to work and happy writing this week!
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Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why the Babel Corporation recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family.
Before long, Emmett discovers that he is one of ten recruits, all of whom have troubled pasts and are a long way from home. Now each recruit must earn the right to travel down to the planet of Eden—a planet that Babel has kept hidden—where they will mine a substance called Nyxia that has quietly become the most valuable material in the universe.
But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. And Emmett will face the ultimate choice: win the fortune at any cost, or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise what it means to be human.