Theme—Day 21

I’d really like to call this Theme—Day 20 1/2 because I want to explore this “self-discovery” issue a little more. Hard to believe, since I am not a fan of angst-driven stories or coming of age tales. I like characters who have it together for the most part.

So how can I hope for a reader to enter into some kind of self-discovery?

I guess the reality is, even though I like characters who have it together, none of them have it ALL together. Characters, if they are three-dimensional, will have flaws or weaknesses or sin in their lives.

Part of a good story is seeing a character overcome or forsake his flaw, weakness, sin. It makes him a better person, one I like even more because he didn’t hide from his marred personality or pretend it was really OK because “nobody’s perfect” or some other plausible reason.

That willingness to face his weakness is a big part of why I feel empathy for a character, I think.

So why am I concentrating on empathy for the character? First because I think that’s what makes him universal. Something about him has to resonate with others across economic, social, racial, age, gender gulfs.

A character who faces what all humans face will be a character who has universal appeal. What is it we all face? A need for love, acceptance, purpose, a place in the universe. A need to deal with our marred nature, to repair the broken connection between us and God, between us and others.

Secondly, if I can create a character universally empathetic, then I think his journey toward growth will of necessity trigger self-discovery in a reader. I as a writer don’t have to point out the thematic change or give a challenge to “go thou and do likewise.” The character growth and development should make the theme clear, or I haven’t done my job, and tacking it on won’t make it better. In fact, tacking it on can become a barrier to self-discovery. It negates the “self” part.

Instead, readers should feel something like, “I’m just like character X because I do Y.” Or “I wish I was like character X. If I do Y I could be.” Or “I used to be just like X. If I’m not careful to do Y, I could be like him again.” Those kinds of things. But none of that happens if the reader doesn’t feel a connection with the character.

I feel like I’m experiencing self-discovery here. Several years ago, my protagonist was about as unsympathetic as you could get, and I thought that was the way I needed him to be in order to show his growth and change. How thankful I am I had critiquers who told me otherwise. Is he universally empathetic? Only time will tell, I guess. But I know that’s what I’m aiming for in my protagonists from now on.

Published in: on April 19, 2006 at 1:14 pm  Comments (2)  


  1. Yeah I can understand universally empathetic, though not necessarily likeable. 🙂 Think of Thomas Covanent from the Unbeliever chronicles. I’ve heard a ton of people say that he (at least started off) as an unlikeable character. But I think his leporacy gave a plausible reason for his gruffness and all around bad attitude, plus he kind of rose to the situation despite that. Same with the doctor on that t.v. show House. 🙂 But those are hard characters to pull off right.

    And don’t leave out the supporting cast of characters. Sometimes they strike deeper nerves and bring up themes that the protagonist can’t (or make that character deeper).

    Maybe this is why coming of age stories are so popular with writers & readers. That is one thing that is pretty universal.


  2. Stuart, you’ve hit on an important element in creating a character that isn’t particularly likeable. Donald Maass addresses that in his book Writing the Breakout Novel. For a time I thought that was what I wanted to do, but the sympathy has to build right from the start, certainly something that happened for me when reading about a character with an incurable and ultimately terminal illness.

    Yes, minor characters do bring up minor themes if done well. I’ve had a blast with some of my minor characters—something I had not anticipated.

    Well, certainly moving from childhood to adulthood is a universal experience. I just don’t understand why ADULTS want to continue reading about it. I always have a been-there-done-that reaction. Makes those books yawners for me.



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