Character or plot? The debate about which one is more important to a story has gone on for a while and will continue to go on for the foreseeable future. Many valid arguments are made from writers and readers on both sides, with many concluding that the best answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Yet, while character and plot are certainly important to a novel, I’m going to suggest in this article that if you’re only asking yourself if your novel should be character-driven or plot-driven, you’re missing a key element of your story. It’s like having two legs of a three-legged stool. With great plot and great characters, you can indeed write a fun story. But until you have the third missing element, you won’t have a great one.
And that missing element is theme.
Now, immediately upon reading it, there are going to be some people who are going to wonder why theme is all that important. Perhaps it’s good to have, but no way is it as central as characters and plot. After all, if theme is given a large place in a novel, doesn’t the novel simply become preachy and unreadable? These are the objections that may very well be raised against this thesis. And to be fair, the latter is a valid concern.
But what I’m going to attempt to show in this article is that theme is an integral part of any novel, and that a failure to develop it is, in the end, a failure to use literature to its true potential. Characters may endear themselves to us. Plots may grip us. But it is theme that teaches us.
Clarifying Definitions: Theme or Message?
Now, before I go on to defend my claim, it’s necessary to provide some definitions, namely—what exactly is a novel’s theme, and how is it different from a novel’s message? Now, many different terms can be used for these concepts, and sometimes theme and message are just used interchangeably. But for the sake of clarity in this article, I would like to distinguish between these two terms.
In short, a novel’s theme represents the topic that the author is writing about, and the novel’s message represents the application from that topic.
A novel’s theme is some sort of broad topic like adolescence, guilt, love, justice, romance, or suffering. A novel’s message is then what the author’s point is with regards to the topic, such as: “Only through suffering can we learn what is truly valuable in life,” or: “Romance untampered by reason is vanity.” Sometimes a book’s message can be stated in a pithy one-liner; sometimes it is too complex to be so-quickly described: either way, it is the point that the author is trying to make in the book. To bring in another analogy, a theme is like the topic of a research paper, but the message is the actual thesis.
With all that hopefully settled, let’s move on to the main portion of this article.
1. The Purpose of Literature
Two millennia ago, the Roman poet Horace famously declared that the purpose of poetry (which, at that time included story as well as poetry proper) was to teach and to delight. This declaration has rung true for many a reader over the millennia and it has rung true because it is true.
Missing either of these two criteria will inevitably run a story into the ground. If a story teaches without delighting, it quickly becomes a glorified sermon. Many people rightly object to this. We all instinctively know that part of the point of fiction is to be able to enjoy ourselves—to get lost in a good book—and when this aspect of a story is sacrificed in order for the author to make a point, something real has been lost.
As a side note, this is why so many Christian books and movies can be quite terrible. In a culture that has largely abandoned the truth, for Christian filmmakers and authors, the temptation is to overcompensate for the lack of morals in secular works by loading their own with so many truths that the novel just sags under their weight and collapses into nothing more than a sermon.
However, the other extreme is equally disastrous—although it may not be as obvious. As much as we might desire otherwise, stories that teach without delighting just end up being escapism. Yes, they may be fun to read, and with an engaging plot and enjoyable characters, they may seem to make for good fiction.
But if a story merely brings us into its own world, it’s done us little good. It’s brought us into an engaging imaginary world, but if it gives us nothing to come back out of it with, the story will never rise above the category of entertainment.
On the contrary, good stories don’t simply take us into an enchanting imaginary world: they take us there and then give us truths concerning our own world. In this way, the act of reading in a story in a sense mirrors the Hero’s Journey: the common fiction writing trope of the hero who goes from the common world into the fantastic and wins against incredible forces in order to come back and re-shape the common world again. As Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College puts it in The Christian Imagination: “Literature is built on a grand paradox: It is a make-believe world that nonetheless reminds us of real life and clarifies it for us.” It is this principle that has also led to the famous quote: “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” The power of literature lies not only in its power to delight, but also in its power to teach.
Given this, since teaching represents a full half of the purpose of literature, in order to fulfill this purpose in your story, you’re going to need a theme. As I will show, characters and plot will lay the foundation for your theme. But ultimately, a theme is necessary to transform your story from simply an escape from reality into an escape into reality.
2. The Unifying Power of Theme
Now, assuming you’re tracking with me that theme is really important, how is it effectively put into practice in your novel? Let me say at the outset that the concept of a novel without a theme is rather self-contradictory in actuality. A story is always going to have a bunch of minor themes present because we’re naturally moral agents, and so we tend to automatically, whether we like it or not, include moral elements in our stories. And for those writers who point to their stories and claim that they lack any sense of morality or theme, that in and of itself is actually a theme.
Nevertheless, for a story to have a strong theme, something more is necessary than a bunch of unconnected minor themes.
So as a writer, you need to start with an idea about what major theme you actually want to address in your book.
Perhaps it’s wrestling with fatal determinism and choice; perhaps it’s examining the line between order and chaos. Then after, you’ve decided what theme you’re going to examine, you’re going to want to think about what different applications can be drawn from this theme, whether right or wrong. Figure out which of the many applications you’ve decided on is the one you actually agree with and want to make your message. And then you’re ready to move onto the next step.
I’ve entitled this second point “The Unifying Power of Theme.” And that’s because in the best books, theme draws the characters and plot together with a variety of techniques. Heroes, villains, settings, plot developments, subplots, and even genre can all be tied together using theme with a variety of techniques, such as irony, foil characters, symbolism, and many others, many of which would serve a full article to tease out their full potential.
But as with many things in life, the unifying power of theme is best shown by example than by explanation. So let’s look at two different stories that exemplify well-done theme: The Dark Knight and Pride and Prejudice. (Spoilers will follow.)
The Dark Knight is largely settled on one question: “Who is the true hero of Gotham?” The story’s setting in the rundown, corrupted Gotham creates the question. The characters provide different potential answers: Harvey Dent and Batman are directly contrasted with each other as the White and Dark Knights with their two differing approaches to fixing Gotham. But the Joker also views himself as a sort of liberator for the people of Gotham. The plot of the story involves these three would-be heroes trying to defeat the one who they think is the problem. And in the end, the story suggests that there are really two different heroes: there’s the hero that Gotham needs, and the one it deserves. And the hero Gotham needs trumps the true hero it deserves. (The Dark Knight Rises then goes on to beautifully take this conclusion, twist it about, and show why it’s actually wrong, but I’ll just leave it with The Dark Knight for now.)
Now, let’s look at Pride and Prejudice. This novel is arguably centered on the question of what makes for a good marriage. The setting, featuring a small town filled with a lot of single nobility without any other problems to deal with lends itself well to the formation of several romances. The plot involves many of them pursuing marriages. And in the different characters that unite in matrimony, we see many different answers:
- the passions that led Lydia to run off with Wickham,
- the practical necessities that led Charlotte to marry Mr. Collins,
- and the mix of passion, practicality, and prudence that led Elizabeth and Darcy to finally unite.
Other married characters represent other sorts of foils as well. But through these different characters and their doings, Austen demonstrates how unbridled passion and practical concerns alone are both poor reasons for marriage: instead, a combination of them with prudence is what is truly needed for a good marriage.
As we can see with the above examples, in both of them all the different elements of the plot, setting, and characters worked to bring about this theme and the theme in turn unified the story. And because everything was interconnected and artistically unified, when the message finally came around, agree with it or not, it most definitely was not preachy.
In truth, preachiness often happens when message is divorced from theme—when instead of springing out of a unified theme, messages are just thrown willy-nilly into a book in a way that only artificially fits with the story.
When the theme is connected with all elements of the story, and a message is allowed to naturally arise out of it, such a novel will rarely be labeled as preachy or sermonic. Instead, it will have fulfilled literature’s potential: to instruct while delighting. Theme has cohesively worked itself into all the other parts of the novel. And because it’s unified it, it’s been given the opportunity to make a point.
Theme is an integral part of the novel that ought to be developed, and in its development, it ought to unify the other parts of a novel. Ultimately, it is a novel’s theme that gives a book the capacity to endure throughout the generations. The presence of a strong theme that is universal to reality and human longings is the element that has defined most classics (if not all) to be classics.
Through theme and message, we as authors are given an opportunity to shed light on a particular facet of reality and suggest a solution to the thorniness and difficulties of life.
The power of literature lies in the combination of instruction and delight. Let us therefore use them together, not as truths to simply throw into a novel, or as entertainment to let us merely escape from the realities of life, but as an organic unity. As Christian writers, let us use the truths that we know to shape our novels.
And then watch as they in turn shape us and others.