Pinning Down the Themes when your Characters Have Agency #amwriting

My writing mind has temporarily lost momentum in my current work. At this point, I’m unsure how to proceed with a pivotal chapter. This has me momentarily stalled on that book.

how the universe works themeFortunately, Irene is editing the final draft of a book I finished during lockdown. She sends me one or two chapters with notes for final revisions each evening. That makes me happy—it’s been a while since I published a book.

When I am stalled on a first draft, it helps to stop and consider the central themes. Theme is one of the elements that drive a plot. This novel’s central theme is redemption, which hasn’t changed.

But this novel is in the first draft stage, and things have already shifted from what was initially plotted. And now I find that some of my characters aren’t as well-planned as I thought they were.

This happens at some point in every first draft. I don’t know the themes of three important characters.

My male protagonist’s void is the death of his brother, and his theme is living through grief. I have that theme pretty well established, but the three side characters are still unclear. Their themes are mysteries at this point. I don’t know their voids as well as I thought, so it’s back to the drawing board.

This happens because the characters have agency and have taken the plot in a different direction than was planned. They are still headed toward the intended destination but are taking the plot through unfamiliar territory.

plot is the frame upon which the themes of a story are supportedAgency is an integral aspect of the craft of writing. It means allowing your characters to make decisions that don’t necessarily follow the original plot outline. This gives them a chance to become real, the way Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy and not a puppet.

A fourth personality has emerged. She’s a side character, and I like the chemistry she has with the others. But her introduction means I must revise my plot outline. Fortunately, clues are emerging.

This constant adjusting of plot and theme is why it takes me more than a year to finish a novel’s first draft. My work is character-driven, and sometimes these people are driving in a demolition derby.

Now I need to refer back to my stylesheet and look at the calendar. I will adjust events to match the timeline when a significant change happens. Adjusting my outlines is a simple process because I create them in Excel. I can delete or move events along the timeline as needed.

My story has a specific ending, but the detours have confused me. Going back to the outline and seeing where the plot took a different turn helps me find my way when I am stuck. It sometimes jars things loose, giving me a flash of inspiration about these characters.

Themes are fundamental underpinnings of the story and can be difficult to get a grip on. They’re subtle, an aspect of our work that is rarely stated in a bald fashion. And despite not being blatantly obvious, themes unify the events of a story. They are idea threads that bind the beginning to the middle and end.

theme_meme_lirf06302020Sometimes we can visualize a complex theme but can’t explain it. If we can’t explain it, how do we show it? For me, that is the real struggle. Grief is a common theme that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi or reality-based, where humans interact emotionally. But it is a complex theme, and people all react differently to it.

Sometimes themes emerge out of a character’s void, which is how the main theme for this story came about.

  • VOID: Each person lacks something, a void in their life. What need drives them?

Their verbs can also suggest themes.

  • VERBS: What is their action word? How does each character act and react on a gut level?

Mood words for meditationHighlighting a strong theme is challenging, even when I begin with a plan. But once I have identified these personal themes, I’ll be able to write their stories. I’ll use actions, symbolic settings/places, allegorical objects in the setting, and conversations to reinforce their personal themes. Their subthemes will support the foundational thread of redemption.

Writing requires a lot of mind-wandering on my part. I spend a lot of time playing solitaire on my computer and thinking about the plot.

When I’m stuck, it always comes back to the themes and subthemes. I have to look again at their individual voids and verbs, the aspects that define them as people. I may have to assign different verbs to them, as they aren’t reacting to each other the way I initially thought they would.

Once I know how their gut-reactions affect them, I will know their personal themes. They will become real, three-dimensional people, the way the protagonist is.

So, that is what I am working on in my current first-draft project this week. NaNoWriMo got it off to a good start, but now the real work begins.




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8 responses to “Pinning Down the Themes when your Characters Have Agency #amwriting

  1. Pingback: Pinning Down the Themes when your Characters Have Agency #amwriting — Life in the Realm of Fantasy – michaelmorrowblog

  2. I’m not actually stalled in my 1st draft at the moment but I’m struggling with getting the plot to go with what I want. After reading this post, I’m wondering if my problem could be in the central theme or maybe themes of my main character(s). Even so, I hesitate to stop the progression I’ve made for something that is likely to change several times yet.

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  3. A wonderful insight into your way of working, Connie. When explaining your current problems with your WIP, you could be describing exactly a problem I have with a work I shelved. Pov character’s theme clear, but the other two, not so much. Story stalled. But I know how it ends!
    I’m sure you will manage to get going again. Good luck.

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