When theme is more important than character

In creative writing, a lot of advice says to develop well-rounded characters. I think this is important and good advice.

However, I am a theme writer.

This realization did not come to me naturally. After discussing my plot threads, a friend simply told me, “You sound a theme writer.” Just like how there are character writers and plot writers.

It was weird to hear that. I felt like I must be a terrible writer, because I don’t care as much about characterization, plot, or worldbuilding like other writers do. I mean, I work on improving every aspect as best as I can, but if I care about themes so much that it’s evidently where I put the most of my energy into—it becomes my style, and thus I am a theme writer.

What is a theme? #

A theme is a challenging question married with philosophy. The more preposterous the question, the more motivated I am to seek an answer, an answer only found by writing and exploring the proposition fully. Like a thesis statement.

A theme is a higher-level, abstract connection that ties art together, right? Are some themes better than others? Can some themes be shallow rather than deep? Are themes mostly for the reader to discover, not the writer to dictate?

The most common advice given about writing is to “go on and just write, and let the theme develop naturally. It’s not worth defining a theme in the beginning, or else your work will come out stilted and preachy.” This is good for beginners who don’t have a secure writing habit.

Every musician has to play scales over and over, maybe as a warmup, maybe so they don’t lose their touch. But warmup scales aren’t songs.

I need to distinguish between writing for fun and writing seriously. When writing for funsies, the results are experimental exercises in skillcraft. They’re not stories. They’re unfinished sketches, resembling how artists fill out notebooks of underdeveloped vignettes and crammed strokes in every corner. I write short pieces with a goal in mind, but not always a particular theme.

We differentiate practice from performance. When writing a piece that is meant to perform, then I lead with a theme.

The theme changes over time, just like how a thesis statement changes. As you conduct research and find more evidence, your original thesis might be flat-out wrong, and you adapt.

But no more aimless just-write-and-the-theme-will-come-to-you. No. If I truly care about polishing the work to a high level, write with a theme in mind from the beginning.

Is character the most important aspect for all stories? #

Before I possessed such conviction, I was lost in the mires of self-doubt.

My initial inspiration was to write about satirical situations drenched with dry cynicism. But in terms of structure, the plot was like a fantasy without a Hero’s Journey, a thriller with too many slice-of-life scenes, a wannabe-horror with less monsters than a museum. The story isn’t funny in the colloquial, slapstick sense of satire.

Is this type of story a hard sell?

I researched and found out about Mennipean satire, which according to Wikipedia:

The genre of Menippean satire… is characterized by attacking mental attitudes rather than specific individuals or entities…

Oooh… 💡

Characterization in Menippean satire is more stylized than naturalistic, and presents people as an embodiment of the ideas they represent.

I’m not the only person in this world who throws characters by the wayside!

A lot of what I read shares traits with Mennipean satire. Piecemeal fragments, absurdist literary fiction, descent‑into‑madness plots, the unraveling of false and erroneous beliefs, or perhaps stretching a belief fully to the extreme, exaggerated grotesque caricatures.

The postmodern style, a descendant of the ancient Roman Mennipea.

I like content that tackles ethical problems. I love journal outlets such as Vice. This is where I derive most of my inspiration. As they say, input = output. My writing resembles what I read.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am.

If I focus on theme, the story will inherently be more philosophical. It might be headier than character-driven stories. This can be good or bad as long as you don’t equate theme with preachiness.

Picking a theme #

The process of picking a theme is that I hear or see something, like news or documentary, and ask a “what if” (Writing fan fiction for real life 😂).

However, a “what-if” is not enough motivation. There are so many what-ifs to choose from.

To actually sit down and write, I must identify a selfish component: the what-if has to relate to my writing goals.

I’ll give you an example of mine, a breakdown of my thought process:

  1. My current goal is to improve characterization.
  2. I encounter an old news feature about a feral girl who went into therapy.
  3. My messed up mind thinks, “Ok, what if instead of being raised by dogs, she was raised by nothing, and kept bound in a dark room for like, 10 years? Then how would she answer the question, ‘Is childhood your happiest time?’”

The girl will still answer, “Yes.”

Then I wrote a short story about this hypothetical person who answers “yes.”

I wanted to write about the most unusual opinion—not the most realistic—because realism kills the story.

“That’s deep, bro” #

There does exist bad or uninteresting what-ifs. For example, “What if marginalized peoples become the oppressors?” is really tacky and shallow. Like, anyone who knows anything about history can guess what’s going to happen. That type of question is vague and predictable and you risk parroting history, only with the sides swapped. Of course, this is my personal opinion. People out there really fear class uprisings.

I’m not saying this topic can never be attempted. The film Cloud Atlas (2012) portrays black people as the scholar class in Afro-futurism style, while the white people are savage island country bumpkins. The film portrays many different types of societies, and oppression is not the main focus. Cloud Atlas explores how societies rise and fall, and how myths are propagated and remembered. The film turns up the boldness, making the actors cross-dress as different races and using makeup to alter their facial features. I think this is hilarious and awesome. A lot of people think it’s disturbing and inappropriate.

No matter what you think, actions speak louder than words. Cloud Atlas is an exercise in empathy, a good faith attempt, and I applaud the directors for trying something new.

A reader can judge a writing piece based on the author’s intentions. If you drum up empathy and validation for an unpopular opinion, without conceding to the opposing viewpoint, it comes off disingenuous and selfish. Some types of wish-fulfillment stories will lean into this tendency on purpose.

For me, a theme has to have a philosophical component. I can’t just write about “childhood is the happiest time” or “love conquers all” or “being poor teaches you empathy.” I need a very specific problem, a very specific situation, and a very specific—unrealistic—character.

By exploring an unrealistic character and giving it the treatment and depth that it deserves, the reader will feel something. If you accept the adage that “truth is stranger than fiction,” then your unrealistic character might actually be mildly tame in the grand scheme of things. It’s easy to hammer the nail that sticks out. It’s easy to “tone down” an unrealistic character into palatable mush. Don’t do this. Realism will kill the story.

Characters aren’t real and they don’t have to be #

I don’t see my characters as real, because they’re not. I don’t care about making them realistic. Backstories, quirks and ticks are decorations on a scarescrow to trick the reader into thinking they’re real. What makes a character interesting aren’t the quirks (uwu), but the theme they’re representing, and the cracks of brittle assumptions.

When they are fictional, they are allowed to grow free from expectations.

I care about a balanced narrative. I care about their ethics, beliefs, the role they play in the story in contrast with dissenters and opposing viewpoints.

In Candide by Voltaire, the man Candide encounters a utopic paradise where everything is abundant and there’s no strife. However, because Candide is dedicated to his personal mission, he decides to leave this “Garden of Eden” of his own volition. Once he leaves he can never come back. The point is to make fun of the protagonist archetype, a proactive do-getter, someone who is so determined and dogged that they don’t know when to quit.

Of course the reader will want to yell at Candide for passing up literal paradise, but Candide is not representative of a relatable or realistic person.

Can you market a theme book? #

At this stage, I’m a wannabe author without novel publishing credentials (yet).

This is not an easy question to answer. I think everything can be marketable if you know what you want to say and why someone would like it.

I know that theme novels are a hard sell. The vast majority of literary agents prefer “high-concept,” which is almost synonymous with “popcorn entertainment.”

There is also the conundrum of popularity: stories that a writer shat out with the least bit of effort become more popular than the treasured magnum opus loved and watered for years.

Case in point: Sherlock Holmes, where Arthur Conan Doyle churned out the most preposterous detective tales that handwaved most of the investigative process, but readers ate up the concept.

I could try writing a story that is more high-concept, but the cosmos have spited me, because the plot needs to be difficult and unformulaic, or else I won’t want to write it.

Wish me luck if I pitch a theme novel. After I manage to revise it in a few years or never, I’ll let you know if I fail or succeed.