By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 23, 2016
We’re now eight posts into our series on Theme. I confess I have the queasy feeling that our concept remains slippery and elusive. So let’s attack it from a different angle—from the idea that the protagonist embodies the theme.
The theme is “A bum can become a champ if he’s just given the chance.”
See how the character of Rocky embodies that?
Theme: “It’s better to act for the greater good than for our own selfish ends.”
Bogie’s character, Rick Blaine, embodies the clash between self-interest and self-sacrifice. When he acts in the climax, his actions become the direct statement of the theme.
Pick any book or movie–Joy, The Martian, The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, all the way back to the Iliad and the story of David in the Bible. Every hero will embody the theme.
This is, again, why theme is so important—and why knowing what our theme is is so helpful to us as writers as we struggle through the structuring of our story.
Lemme go out on a limb and describe my own process in this regard for an historical novel I wrote called The Virtues of War.
The subject of The Virtues of War is Alexander the Great’s conquests. Note I say subject, not theme.
Like every writer, I write by instinct. I follow the Muse. Scenes come to me. A story starts to take shape. In addition, working with historical material, like Alexander’s real life in this case, I have certain scenes and events from history that I know I can use if I choose to.
But from the very first, I’m asking myself, “What is the theme? What is this story about?”
Why am I asking this?
Because once I know the theme, I will know the climax, or at least its emotional structure. I’ll know the climax because I know as a principle of storytelling that the hero and the villain must clash in the climax over the issue of the theme (just like Rocky and Apollo Creed fight it out in the ring [the antagonist is really not Creed, it’s Rocky’s self-sabotaging belief that he is a bum and will always remain so] and Bogie and his conscience clash in the silence of his saloonkeeper’s soul).
But back to Alexander the Great. As I’m starting to structure The Virtues of War, I have a massive swath of material to work with—battles, court intrigues, conquests, family dynamics. I can’t use it all. I have to narrow it.
What, I ask myself, is this freaking thing about?
(A sidebar but a critical one: the book came to me as two sentences that popped into my head and seized me totally.
I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.
In other words, the Muse. The story waits there, like a dream, embedded in those two sentences. I had no idea who was speaking those sentences, what they meant, or where they would lead. I tried on various characters. Was it X? Y? Finally, I’m not sure how, I concluded it was Alexander.)
Okay. What next?
I start to rough-in a story in my head. But with every potential scenario I’m asking myself, “What is this about? What’s the theme?”
Why does Alexander use the word “soldier?” Why not “king?” Or “world conqueror?”
Why does he say “always?” Clearly he means “from birth,” or even before.
I decided that the theme was the morality (or immorality) of conquest.
The question the book would ask would be, “Is it wrong to bring war to other nations and to conquer them?”
But Alexander’s words “soldier” and “always” added a second moral dimension.
Is the vocation of soldiering honorable? Are there such things as warrior virtues, for instance courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice, adherence to a code of honor, capacity to endure adversity, etc. For me, the answer to these questions is yes.
How, then, do we reconcile these soldierly virtues with the reality of conquest? Can it be “right” to invade other nations’ homelands, to deprive them of their liberty, their pride, their sense of worth?
This is how a writer thinks. This is how he or she attacks a subject.
I decide I will not tell Alexander’s story from cradle to grave, including all the stuff of his biography that we’ve heard over and over.
I will build the story entirely around the theme. I will cut everything else.
I will identify an antagonist and that antagonist will represent the counter-theme.
I will find a climax that turns around the issue of the theme.
I will have every supporting character represent a different aspect of the theme.
Yes, the structuring of the story worked exactly this way. It was architecture. It was design.
Here’s one example out of many:
The real-life Alexander had a number of generals surrounding him. Many were his friends from childhood. Virtually every one of Alexander’s commanders was a giant in his own right–Ptolemy, Seleucus, Craterus, Hephaestion, Parmenio, Coenus, Perdiccas, to name just the leading ones.
I pushed all but two to the background. I made the pair I chose (Craterus and Hephaestion) represent aspects of the theme.
They became like angel and devil on Alexander’s shoulders. Craterus embodied one aspect of the theme (“Conquest is honorable; it is the ultimate end of the soldier’s calling”); Hephaestion represented the other (“Past a certain point, war becomes a crime, and we soldiers become criminals.”)
Alexander, the protagonist, was stuck in the middle, on the horns of the theme.
The book’s structure is a lot more complicated than that, but you get the gist—theme determines who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is, what events will constitute the narrative, what the climax will be, and what issue the final clash between protagonist and antagonist will be about. In other words, theme determines everything and is present in everything.
Let me finish this post with a sidebar of a sidebar. (I may be violating my own rule here by appending a notion that is not “on theme” for this post.)
Here it is:
Though I as a writer was consciously and deliberately employing the idea of theme and its corollaries to structure The Virtues of War, the story itself and the characters were coming from an entirely different source. I very much had the feeling that the Muse (or my unconscious or whatever) was feeding me this story. I felt like a detective, trying to tease it out. I was following clues. I was being led.
I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.
Those two sentences (that I could in no way claim as coming from “me”) gave me protagonist, theme, tone of voice, point of view—and, by deduction, antagonist, supporting characters, overall story shape, and climax.
As each character or scene appeared, I felt like I was following a trail of bread crumbs. The lantern by whose gleam I tracked them was the idea of theme.
When a character arose I asked myself, “What aspect of the theme does he or she represent?”
One quick example and I’ll finish.
A true historical king named Porus fought a great battle with Alexander in India. I made him the book’s physical antagonist. (Alexander’s inner antagonist was inside his own head.) I had Porus confront Alexander, in a face to face parley, over the issue of the theme.
The theme, remember, is the morality (or immorality) of conquest, specifically for a commander of genuine honor, who believes in and adheres to the virtues of war. Why, Porus asks Alexander, have you and your army crossed half the earth to bring war to my people, who have never harmed you? Are you a king or a devil? How do you justify your life and what you have done?
Forgive me for citing my own work. I’m not doing it for reasons of ego, I promise.
The point is to demonstrate how a writer, in the midst of shaping a work that is “coming to him” over weeks and months from his Muse, employs the concept of theme to organize the narrative, to determine what to keep and what to cut, and to decide how it all fits together.
It’s the key to everything.