It’s been about three months since I started the Making Your Characters Feel Feelings series, and it’s led to some significant writing breakthroughs for me!
The research has definitely helped me to explore my characters more deeply and has added a layer to my plotting and planning process. One thing I’ve discovered is how emotions can be used as a theme for your story. I want to show you all how I put this idea to work!
What is a theme?
Theme is the overall message of your story. It’s the meaning expressed with your plot and through your character’s internal and external conflicts. If plot is what happens, theme is why those things are happening.
There are several universal themes that most stories fit into:
Most of the emotions I’ve researched in Making Your Characters Feel Feelings fit into these universal themes. Identifying the theme of your book will help you develop your character arc. Grounding that theme in an emotion will give you a clear idea of where your character is at the start of the story and where they need to be at the end in order to show growth.
For The Truth Duet, the overarching theme for both books is trust. My main character, Ava Marie Greene, is distrustful of almost everything, everyone, and even herself. In book one, The Truth of Things, she had to learn how to trust in others, herself, and the unknown, despite what was going on around her. In book two, The Way Things Are, she has to hold onto that trust under the same conditions and find the available joy no matter what happens to her and the man that she loves. Identifying your universal theme ahead of time allowed me to see Ava’s growth more clearly and to make sure that my plot points were challenging her in a way that made sense.
What does the theme that you have chosen have to say about life, the world, or human nature?
I’ve mentioned this before, but I started writing The Truth Duet as a way to make sense out of the brutality and violence against young men of color by those in perceived to be positions of power — be it law enforcement, or armed citizens. With the central theme of trust, it allowed me to explore the story from two different angles — Ava Marie Greene who had an inherent distrust of the police, and Levi Alistar Raymond, a law enforcement officer who is doing his best to change the culture in a corrupt organization. That was just the spark of the story. Giving my characters voice and actions to actually convey that on the page required a deep dive into how distrust becomes trust and vice versa.
To do that, I asked myself these coaching questions:
Why do you want to tell this story?
Do you know what point you’re trying to make?
Is there something that you are trying to prove or disprove with this story?
Will your story have something to say about life, the world, or about human nature?
Is this story shaped around a particular issue that you hold dear or one that gets under your skin?
Does this story align with virtues that you value personally or that you think are undervalued?
What vices scare you? What vices do you dislike? Why?
What kind of change would you like to see in the world? Why?
When you’re developing your theme, it’s also important to consider your genre.
I write romance, so this can be a bit difficult to pinpoint sometimes because there could be any number of subgenres at play. However, each genre has its own universal themes, tropes, genre norms, and reader expectations that authors should consider while writing.
Action, horror, and thriller stories - survival, fear, safety, life and death, courage, and good vs. evil
Love stories - friendship, romance, human connection, and intimacy
Mystery stories - justice, injustice, safety, and good vs. evil
Morality stories - altruism, selfishness, and right vs. wrong
Performance stories - respect, esteem, and shame
Society stories - power, revolution, equality, and corruption
Status stories - success, failure, admiration, and pity
Coming-of-age stories - ignorance, wisdom, meaning, and maturing
Westerns - freedom, survival, courage, good vs. evil, and right vs. wrong
War stories - survival, courage, honor, and safety
The Truth Duet is a romance with some morality thrown in for good measure. So I asked myself these questions:
What did I have to say about justice? Or murder?
Does justice prevail?
If so, why? How?
What does justice mean to me?
What does it say about love or human connection?
Does love conquer all? If so, how?
The answers to these questions helped me begin to develop my characters and the plot. However, if these questions didn’t work for you, there is one other way to develop your theme. Emotions are now my next step, and it’s become a short cut that gets me closer to the story I want to tell.
Use your chosen emotion to illustrate how your character has changed from the beginning of the story to end.
This might get some of the plot-driven authors up in arms, but the point of telling a story is not the plot — at least not entirely. We read the story to follow the internal and external struggles of your characters and how the plot that you’ve dreamed up changes them. The internal struggle is what I’ve been referring to as the character arc. The external struggle is your plot. The growth of your character is usually related to the theme of your story, to get to the root of this, ask yourself these questions about your main character:
Who is your character at the beginning of the story?
What emotion/feeling do they feel in the opening scene?
How do your pivotal plot points affect your character’s feelings/emotions? Do they change for better or worse?
What are your character’s flaws?
How do those flaws exacerbate the emotions they felt in the opening scene? Does it make it harder or easier to ignore?
What central problem or limiting belief holds them back from happiness or achieving their goal?
Do they overcome their flaws and the obstacles that stand in their way? If so, how do they do it?
How do you want your character to feel at the end of the story?
What will they gain and/or lose?
Who has your character become by the end of the story?
Themes will naturally arise when you answer these questions about your character. If you’ve purchased and completed The Basic Character Creation Workbook, you’ll be able to find answers to these questions in there.