There’s no right way to start writing, as they say. There are simply different roads that lead to the end result.
Many people will tell you they start with a character or a scene and then build the story and its thematic underpinnings. Many others will tell you that they write by vibes and intuition, following the story as it comes and discovering the themes that hold it all together as they go. That is fine. Me? When I begin working on a new project, I always start with a theme.
In taking a more theme-focused approach to writing, I build the story, the world, and its characters in service of the ideas I want to explore.
That may sound obvious or very strange, depending on how you plan your projects. For the purpose of this little exercise, let’s say you’re interested in building your story around a certain set of themes, but don’t quite know how to get started.
So, let’s talk about how to marry theme, world-building, and characterization. Consider this something of a mini theme workshop. Give the exercises a try and see if anything works for you.
Find and Establish Your Theme
First things first! A theme is, very broadly, the underlying message or point of view of your story. It’s often said that the theme conveys the author’s view of the world, but that’s a little too concrete and narrow for my tastes. The point of view is often confused with the moral of the story or a single, unified lesson the writer wants to convey. This, again, is too narrow a definition, and you could find yourself bogged down on what your story teaches rather than what you want to explore.
I think of theme as a set of principles. A framework to drape the story over. The themes function as the groundwork of the world, and everything else inside of it serves to bring those ideas to life. Your themes can be as broad and abstract or precise and direct as you want (or need) them to be. Common themes can include but are certainly not limited to:
- Love or finding acceptance
- Perseverance over adversity
- Coming of age
- War or conflict
- Quests or journeys
- Chaos versus order
- Faith versus doubt
- The individual versus society
- Humanity versus nature
- Finding or making family
- Death and grief
To begin, I ask myself a series of four questions. These may not all apply to you, or you may only benefit from one or two of them. That’s okay. Try to think of these questions as thought experiments more than homework and see if anything comes of it.
- What ideas, questions, or historical periods does your story intend to explore? What questions does this story ask the reader or its author?
- What social constructs, preconceptions, or expectations do your story want to investigate?
- What point of view do you want to present as it relates to the above questions?
By figuring out the answers to these questions, your themes, be they simple or complex, will start to take shape. Whether you’re writing a historical romance, a sci-fi adventure, or a horror story, it’s useful to think through these questions. They can help you take a step back from what we tend to focus on – plot and characters – and see your story with more clarity.
Now, how can you use your themes to start building your world?
I find that the world of your story should be an extension of the story you’re telling. Its social hierarchies and internal logic should be informed by the themes that you’re exploring. Your world does not need to be our world, per se, because it is fiction and should make sense for the story at hand.
To do that, you need to determine how the world functions and how it reinforces the themes of your story. I like to do that by asking myself the following questions. Again, they may not all apply to you, but it’s good to think about.
- Who has power (authority, agency, or the ability to impose their will on others) in this world, and why?
- How do those in power maintain it, and how does that directly impact those without power?
- What are the messages or values that are privileged over others in this culture?
- What messages or values do you want to convey instead?
That probably sounds complicated, so let’s break it down a bit.
If you’re writing a historical romance, you want to know what social obstacles are in the way of your protagonist finding their true love. Say, she’s a woman of low social status who has fallen in love with a duke. Then the world of the story should convey what she’s up against, and you want to show that the world is wrong for holding her back.
Suppose you’re writing a sci-fi adventure story. In that case, you want to know how the villainous corporation or government agency is pushing your protagonist to fight back. You want to show just how unfair the society is and how it must be upended.
This line of thinking doesn’t solely apply to society. It also applies to the home and inner social circles that surround your protagonist. If you’re writing a coming-of-age story, you’re writing about the values and desires of your main character, who conflicts with the values and desires of their family, friend group, school, job, or hometown. A parent can be an authority figure with agency over their child. Those dynamics can be an extension of your themes as the parent-child relationship unfolds throughout the story.
World-building can be as extensive and in-depth as an entire culture on an alien planet or as small as a home and the family within it. It’s important to make sure that when you begin building your world, it reenforces your themes and helps convey the point of view you’re developing.
So, finally, now that you have your themes and a rough idea of how they shape the world of your story, how do you create characters to fill it with?
Theme and Characterization
For most authors, your characters are the soul of your story. They are the vehicle for your reader to enter your world and the points of view your reader assumes throughout the book. More than that, your characters’ actions and experiences help guide the reader toward the conclusion or statement you’re trying to make. This is why it’s important to figure out how your characters can reflect on and engage with your themes in subtle or explicit ways.
So, once again, I come armed with my questions.
- How do your characters perform or embody the messages or values you want to communicate?
- Where does your character sit in the world? (Do they embody or align themselves with the status quo, or are they opposed to it?)
- How does the world shape each character and their points of view?
- How can their actions or experiences over the course of the story emphasize or draw attention to your themes?
I find that by taking time to figure out exactly how each of my characters is informed by or related to my chosen themes, their roles in the story become more precise. The plot events and character arcs that spring from that groundwork can make it easier to connect those dots, so to speak. It can help me bring everyone’s character arcs together in ways that feel natural and satisfying for the story I’m telling.
After all, you don’t just want to tie everything up. You want it to make sense, both logically and emotionally, and help emphasize the ultimate meaning you’re trying to convey.
Why Themes Are Your Friend
Now, with all of that said, you might still be asking yourself why any of this matters. A story doesn’t have to be deep or convey a complex message. And that’s true! Your story can be simple and still resonate with readers. But, as noted above, anything—no matter how simple – can be a theme. Think about the stories you encounter all the time.
True love conquers all?
That’s a theme.
Goodness will prevail over evil?
Another common theme.
Sometimes the family you create is stronger than the one you come from?
You get what I mean.
So, don’t get hung up on the idea that themes = depth. A theme is just the glue that helps hold the story together. By spending some time establishing your themes, you can build the story’s world to help express them clearly and with intention.
Magen Cubed is an Eisner-nominated writer, essayist, and occasional critic, best known for her queer monster-hunting urban fantasy/paranormal romance series SOUTHERN GOTHIC. She has appeared in the critically acclaimed TWISTED ROMANCE comics anthology from Image Comics and has bylines on the award-winning Women Write About Comics. Magen lives in Florida with her girlfriend Melissa and a little dog named Cecil.
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About Leather and Lace (Southern Gothic #1)
Falling in love with a vampire bites—and sometimes loving a human bites back.
Dorian Villeneuve is an unlucky vampire from the slums of Devil’s Row. He makes ends meet for himself and his emotional support Chihuahua by working sleazy bars and nightclubs, doing what it takes to get by. Cash Leroy is a monster hunter from East Texas with a golden voice and an unrivaled devotion to Stevie Nicks. Hunting does not leave time for friends, let alone love.
When their paths cross during a bloody run-in with the vampire mob, Cash upends Dorian’s life—and takes Dorian under his wing to teach how to hunt monsters.
The unlikely pair become partners, and soon, best friends. However, their deepening bond grows complicated when Dorian falls in love with Cash. Their friendship is too important to throw away over an interspecies attraction, especially in a career that is already nasty, brutish, and short.
And things become even more complicated when Cash finds himself returning the vampire’s affections.
When an unusually deadly case lands in the hunters’ laps, their ill-fated affair takes a backseat. A pair of man-eating weredeer are on the loose taking victims’ hearts. With the pressure on to end the killing spree, Dorian and Cash must set aside their feelings and hunt down the blood-thirsty deer.
Can Dorian and Cash’s friendship survive this monstrous romance, or will they lose their hearts in the process?
Originally seen in the Eisner-nominated TWISTED ROMANCE anthology from IMAGE COMICS, this is the full-length adaptation of the critically acclaimed short story.