The Hero Embodies the Theme
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.
What a well-developed argument for theme as backbone. Thank you, Steven.
I still get flummoxed by the differences between theme, concept, premise, and idea.
But you cleared up some of the haze today.
Paddy Cheyofsky once wrote that he starts his plays not knowing the theme or premise, but once he “discovers” it, he posts it on his typewriter. And disregards any ideas that aren’t in some way consistent with that premise. (Or theme?) Proving for him, it was the key to everything.
I can’t get enough of this conversation, Steven. I love your two sentences from the Muse. I had a similar experience at the start of my current project, and mistook the line I ‘heard’ for the title. Several revisions on, I’m seeing this line as a clue to my theme. Thank you for sharing your process. It’s enormously helpful!!
Quote your work anytime you like, sir. Eloquently exemplifies the point.
As I have finally started writing (thanks to “The War of Art” and this site) I’ve decided to start with a theme and then build around it. Luckily I have extensive worldwide travel experiences to draw from.
I’ve also lost my fear, Mr. Pressfield, and am now confident that if my work stinks, I learn from it. The only way to know is to put it out there. This is greatly empowering and drives me to continue trying.
As the Pulitzer building at Columbia University says, “The search for Truth – although you may never find it – will set you free.” I now see writing as the search for the Truth within.
This series on theme is invaluable Steve – thank you so much!
BRILLIANT! You have just solved a 4-year problem for me…”What the hell is theme.” This is why I recommend “The War of Art, “Do The Work,” and “Turning Pro” to anyone who will listen. Thank you.
Being a materialist and naturalist I start with the idea that the muse is you.
One way to test this hypothesis: Does the Muse bring knowledge outside what you know?
In other words: Does the Muse ever strike with an idea on a subject that the writer has never been materially exposed to?
I suspect not.
I mention this to further drive home a point that is often said and just as often ignored:
Read. Read. Read.
We enjoy battle stories, war stories, hero’s journeys so much because they allow the vicarious emotional experience that we are (sometimes) to cowardly to take ourselves.
I still can’t get over the Unbroken movie—that the soldiers survived on that life raft for 40-plus days—unreal. I read the book too, so it was nice to see the visual.
Only last night, I was revising a current project, and struggling with WHY certain characters were behaving so – wrong, I guess is the word. It didn’t make sense, didn’t really further the plot, didn’t help my case in any way.
SO glad I read this post before working today, because the lightbulb went on over my head. I KNOW the theme of this novel, as a matter of fact. It’s time to rein them all in, and now I see how to do it.
I cannot thank you enough for this post. Truly, truly helpful words.
Another great lesson! “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” I am the student….
Great post, Steven. I cherish those times when a character whispers in my ear. Uncanny and incredibly helpful! Loving the precision and clarity of your posts.
Slowly but surely, Steven Pressfield is turning my dimmer switch to the right.
I’m enjoying and learning from these posts on theme. Thank you.
Dear Mr. Pressfield. I read your book “The war of art” and it got me out of my 20 year block. So first I just want to say thanks. I am finally doing my work everyday. Second.. I have been reading your posts and pardon me for saying this, but you should really stop apologizing all the time. It´s ok to talk about your work to make a point… Also, you have good material to share… valuable tips and guidelines. SO why all the insecurity? It´s just not cool. A warrior does his work without saying he´s sorry. He may feel that way… but saying it, destroys the inherent honor of the job.
I find it to be part of his charm. There is a great line written by Victor Davis Hanson a few years ago…”we all long for the unapologetic doer”.
I agree with VDH about the unapologetic doer, but here I find Steven’s style charming. It is authentic. Open Kimono. That takes more courage than anyone not apologizing.
I so agree! I think Steven is so raw and truthful about this excruciating process of writing we put ourselves through, that I find his posts endearing, and real.
I have thought of many of his comments, on this site, and in his book, that has “saved” me from my drama.
Everyone has their own unique stamp, and I don’t think he could change his style/muse if he wanted to…
Loving this series, Steven! I master class on theme.
Much appreciated for what you do for us. (man, that sounds kinda cheesy, but you know what I mean!)
I like how with your breath of knowledge, both print and screen, you quote lots of others. You remind the rest of us to read widely too, not just write.
Of course you should continue to do that as a first resort, but as a second resort, as the above commenters have said, please feel free to quote your own stuff.
God only knows how long, if ever, it would take me to learn this stuff on my own.
The concept of theme is the hardest one to explain to clients. Your series has helped immensely. For what it’s worth, I start off by nailing the PREMISE, which then helps focus the theme. The premise is the skeleton or bones of the book/story, and the theme is the flesh, muscle and soul. The premise supports the spiritual, fluid, psychological mass of the body…the premise ensures that mass has purpose, forward motion and definition.
Hi Mr. Pressfield,
I hope you don’t mind I used your quote for this article in an op-ed I wrote concerning a Petition I launched on Change.org.
The timing of your article was synchronistic and it just fit perfeclty so I went with God! I hope you don’t mind terribly.
Thank you for sharing your gifts with us.
Here’s my petition in question: https://www.change.org/p/peter-whittlesey-stop-hijacking-lao-cultural-heritage-give-sinxay-back-to-lao-people
Awesome stuff. And maybe I am misremembering this, but I thought part of your process in writing The Virtues of War had something to do with the idea of “what would it be like to have absolute, soul-deep confidence that one’s genius/daemon was totally equal to the task of world domination — i.e., to be absent self-doubt of any kind so achingly familiar to almost anyone living in the modern world (especially writers). And it’s interesting that this (what? sub-theme? theme offshoot?) also seems contained in the opening lines.
So I’m wondering what happens when you know your theme is about one thing, but there’s this compelling fascination or interest you have that’s perhaps tangentially related to the theme, but isn’t quite on theme. What was your process like when you were writing The Virtues of War?
You comment above….” 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.)”
I go through the same process. I believe we actually DO get information from afar… in this case, you connected with the spirit of Alexander. I know this is not part of our modern belief system.
But my writing has improved noticeably since I asked Bill Shakespeare to be my muse.