Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Characters

Once you know the theme of your novel and have a good idea of who your main character is, what they want, and how they change, you’re ready to start looking at your side characters.

Each of your characters will have a certain view or statement or opinion that has to do with your theme. Some of them will be similar to your MC’s. Some of them may be a kind of mirror that shows the same idea in a different situation. Other characters may have totally different ideas around the theme. This is where your tension comes in. Real, deep, meaningful tension. When these worldviews clash and cause their characters to do things that bring them into conflict.

The most obvious of these is the antagonist. The antagonist in your novel generally seems to take one of two slants with regards to theme. They either have an opposite theme statement from your MC, or they have a very similar theme statement that they’ve taken just a bit farther than your main character. I know that’s hard to understand, so let me show you.

Hamilton: The antagonist is Aaron Burr. Remember how Alexander Hamilton’s theme statement is about creating a legacy by not throwing away his shot? Well, Aaron Burr’s is pretty much the opposite. He has a legacy to protect and he is willing to wait for it. Totally, totally different.

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Zootopia: On the other hand, Zootopia is different. In the beginning it seems Nick is Officer Hopps’ antagonist, and they seem to have opposite world views. But the true antagonist of the movie is Assistant Mayor Bellweather.

Now, Officer Hopps’ theme statement at the end of the movie is “change begins with you.” But at the beginning of the movie, she is very much about proving everyone wrong who is biased about her. Basically, forcing her rosy, cheery world view on others. Bellweather is also trying to prove everyone wrong and force her world view, but she takes it too far. She uses violence and deception. She already has so much in common with Officer Hopps, it’s not too surprising that their theme statements are similar (with this sort of an antagonist, their theme view is close to the MC’s theme view at the beginning of the book. Facing off with the antagonist is part of the MC’s character arc and helps them change to that final realization/theme statement.)

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Of course, there are other side characters who are not just the antagonist. Make sure you give each of them some way of playing into the theme. Maybe you already know your characters and so as you think about them you’ll be able to see their part of the theme emerge. This is how I do it. I write the first about quarter of the book and discover my characters, then I start assigning them different theme statements.

But if you are in the first planning stages of your novel, maybe you’re still designing characters. In which case, it’s helpful to think about your theme and think about all the opposing views on it that you can, or different ways that theme can be wrestled with and design characters around the ideas that would create the most tension and conflict.

I know this is NOT how Lin Manuel-Miranda planned his musical, but let’s just pretend we are trying to plot the greatest musical ever and think about what kinds of characters we want.

We know the theme is about legacy and the statement is “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

The MC and antagonist have opposite views on legacy, with one taking the bull by the horns and creating a legacy and the other waiting for it and protecting one.

But what other kinds of characters can we have around this idea? Well, how about someone who already knows their story is going to be told and feels the pressure of that? How about someone whose story is told incorrectly? How about someone whose story is never told? How about someone who doesn’t want to be part of the story but doesn’t have a choice? Maybe you can come up with other kinds of characters. At the very least, you should be able to figure out who each of these characters are in the show.

Now let’s do it for Zootopia. We already have our Main Character, who believes that in Zootopia anyone can be anything and she is going to prove it to everyone! Well, what kind of characters might cause problems for her? How about a character who knows Zootopia’s dark side and knows that there is a sinister bias against certain animals and has experienced it? How about characters who worry that the idea of being able to be anything puts their loved ones at risk? How about a character who feels like that attitude puts his police officers at risk? What about a character who uses that shiny idea to make himself look good but doesn’t actually have to deal with the problems he creates?

These are all characters in Zootopia, do you see how their views on the theme create conflict and tension?

In my current WIP, the theme is about becoming a community by addressing each others’ needs. I know I will have a character who uses the community for his own mockery/gossip/entertainment purposes. I know I will have a character who refuses to be part of the community. I know I will have a character with a very real need who does not let the community know so they can’t help her. I also have another character with a big problem that actually helps solve another person in the community’s problem, but only after they connect and share. I have a character who is part of a different community that doesn’t appreciate her and needs to break ties. And I have a character who feels too busy to interact with the community.

Now, not all theme work will look like this. In the WIP I just finished, the theme is about being two seemingly opposite things at the same time and finding hope in that. And so, instead of giving each character a different idea about that, I gave them each a different pair of opposing feelings or ways of being that they were struggling with. My main character struggled with the idea that she could be living and dying at the same time. Her father struggled with faith and doubt. Her mother felt torn between her duties as a mother and a wife. Her friend struggled with feeling both proud and embarrassed of her neurodiverse brother, who was struggling with being both normal and different at the same time. See how this is different than the kind of theme statements we talked about above, but how they still helped me create characters that deepen the theme?

There are so many ways that your characters can interact with your theme, you just have to make sure that each of them do and that you can form a statement about how they relate to the theme.

Once you’ve figured out how your characters interact with the theme of your book, it’s time to look at your setting….in my next post. 🙂

Amanda Rawson Hill