So…symbolism. We’re pretty familiar with this storytelling element, and I’m guessing most of us have experimented with the use of symbols in our writing. In a nutshell, you take an object, word, color, phrase, etc., and apply it in a story to give it a deeper meaning:
Tolkien’s one ring (evil) in Lord of the Rings
The floating feather (destiny/fate) in Forrest Gump
A Mockingjay (rebellion) in The Hunger Games
Some symbols are super obvious; other times, readers have more of a subconscious awareness that the object is really meant to represent X. Either way, when a symbol is deliberately included in a creative work, it’s almost always saying something about the story’s theme.
But theme … this one isn’t as easy to grasp. So let’s talk about this storytelling element and how you can use it along with symbolism to strengthen your writing.
What Is Theme?
The theme of a story is the central message that explores a universal concept. Nature, good vs. evil, freedom—ideas like these are common to the human experience, and when we include them in our writing, readers tend to engage with them and connect with the text and the characters on a deeper level.
But thematic ideas themselves aren’t typically so neutral. The author will often bring their own worldview and perspective to bear on a given concept to form a thematic statement that supports a specific perspective:
We’re all part of the circle of life. (The Lion King)
Every human has equal capacity for good and evil. (Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
Freedom requires sacrifice. (Braveheart)
Typically, this statement emerges and is proven out through the protagonist’s journey. They may start out embracing the thematic statement, which is challenged along the way by other ideas, but it survives the test of time and holds true. (Or the protagonist refuses to embrace that statement, ensuring in most cases that the story ends in tragedy.)
Alternatively, the hero may come to the story with a contrasting statement that is eventually proven wrong. And in some cases, the protagonist has no particular dog in the thematic fight; they arrive on page one without an opinion either way about the main idea. But by the final pages, the people they’ve encountered and trials they’ve faced have made them believers in the thematic statement.
As authors, we’re orchestrating this process. Sometimes it happens subconsciously, with our deeply rooted opinions organically making their way onto the pages as we write. But others take a more strategic approach to theme; they know what idea they’re trying to get across. It’s just a matter of figuring out the best way to do it.
Well, good news! We’ve got some tried-and-true methods for you to do just that.
Use the Whole Cast Via…
Contrasting Thematic Statements. If you’ve done your character creation homework, you’ve assembled a cast that is diverse in experience, personality, and mindset. As a result, each player will see the thematic idea from their own perspective. Allow readers to explore the central idea through the lens of those different viewpoints.
For instance, greed is the concept being explored in the movie Wall Street, and the players involved all see it a little differently. Protagonist Bud is a clean slate, with no preconceived ideas about it. His mentor lives by the mantra “Greed is Good,” and he has the money and moral ambiguity to prove it. Bud’s father, a hardworking blue-collar family man, believes that strength of character and being able to look yourself in the eye are more important than being rich. Bud’s girlfriend doesn’t reference greed overtly, but her ability to be bought says volumes. These viewpoints all leave an impression on Bud, formulating his ideas and influencing his journey to finally understanding and embracing his truth about the theme of greed.
Surround your protagonist with characters whose thematic statements contrast with his own. As the story unfolds and conflicts arise, the characters will respond based on their preconceived ideas about the theme. This will allow you to convey the idea you’re wanting to get across.
Personality Traits. We’re largely defined by our values, and this comes through in the traits that define us. The same is true for our characters. Someone who is honorable will look at greed differently than someone who is materialistic, selfish, or even ambitious. Likewise for an idealist vs. a cynic. Personality will naturally impact your character’s opinions and values, so whatever theme you want to explore, give each character the negative and/or positive traits that will make their beliefs about it make sense.
Experiences. A character’s ideals will also be influenced by their experiences. Let’s take, for example, a theme of family. Someone who grew up in a tight-knit, got-your-back family may swear by the adage that blood is thicker than water. But a character who was abandoned by their parents and has had to cobble together their own support system may believe that family is what you make it. Being raised in a home defined by rigid rules, strict punishments, and condemnation could cause someone to feel that family is a prison that must be escaped. Each character’s history—the good and the bad—will contribute to their personal ideas about your story theme. Set them up to have their own ideas about the theme by giving them the backstories that will support those beliefs.
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