Do characters express theme?

Should I let my characters do whatever they want, or force them to embody important ideas?

By Cary Tennis

Published February 20, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

Jefferson Starship guitarist Slick Aguilar needs a new liver and so David Crosby, Marty Balin and others will be playing a benefit concert for him Sunday, Feb. 24, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Among those friends playing at the benefit will be my pal from Miami Kevin Hurley. So if you can make it, or if it is sold out, feel free to just donate something.

The following Sunday, March 3, there will be another benefit at the GAMH I care deeply about,  for engineer and producer Tom Mallon. If you ever recorded with Tom or know someone who did, then you will understand the outpouring of love and creativity that news of his illness has sparked.

And now to our scheduled program, in which we are continuing to talk about writing and creativity, and really starting to dig deep:

Hey there, Cary,

I'm a writer/filmmaker who graduated in December of 2011 with a B.A. in film studies, and have since spent my time conceptualizing stories for scripts while traveling around the United States and even all the way to Japan. I found that while traveling, my inclination to write became about incorporating themes that would inspire people to see the world in a different way, engage with people in and outside of their communities, or simply to consider some new idea. Unfortunately, trying to actually write with these goals in mind resulted in a total writer's block. It took me a while to realize I simply couldn't work that way.

Then, I resorted back to focusing on character, as I was taught in my filmmaking and creative writing classes. It was a pleasant surprise to find my mind rampant with ideas. However, with all these ideas to run on and characters to write about, I wonder what themes will result, and how powerful they will become if I just let the characters control the story.

So here's my many-questions-in-one question: In writing, is there a productive, balanced middle-ground between theme and character? Does it pay to be especially meticulous and controlling when writing a story? Or, as an artist, am I thinking too much or taking myself too seriously? Should I trust my creative soul to communicate itself effectively?

Humbly yours,

Humbly Yours

Dear Humbly Yours,

You are so humble! (I also am humble. I return the compliment.)

Here is what I suggest. Write a character who sees the world in a different way. Write a character who wants others to see the world in a different way. Write a character who engages with people in and out of their communities.

See where I'm going with this? Notice I say "write a character" not "write about a character"? As in, make one, out of clay, like the god you are. Make one in your own image. For, at this early stage of your development, you are probably the only person you really know well. And these themes, they are yours. So do not give them to a character who is not you. They might not fit.

Your best shot is to make a character in your own image, with your own ideals and passions, and let this character set out to do the things you mention -- see the world in a different way, engage with people toward some purpose.

My thought is this: The aesthetic coherence and balance you seek will flow out of this character's action. If the character really really wants to change the world then let him honestly try; and let's find out what happens. If the character genuinely wants to engage with people and try to have them see the world in a different way, then let him try and let's see what happens.

You express some concern about just letting the characters control the story. Yes, if the characters are on their way to meet the president to change the way aid is distributed to Sri Lanka and on a whim stop for ice cream and then become distracted with video games and miss their appointment with the president, that might be not good. Or it might be good, depending on how true you want to be to these characters and on whether what happened flows out of who they are, or just out of your wish fulfillment, because you are writing when hungry and bored.

Yes, characters may get off track. If that happens because you as the writer lose the thread of the story then that may be a problem. But if the character gets off the track because of who he is and what his task is, because changing the world is hard and the consequences of trying are often unpleasant, and the character is somewhat hedonistic, with a sweet tooth and maybe a crush on the woman who dishes out the ice cream, and also is ambivalent because he fears that the president won't take his recommendations seriously, and maybe if at the last minute he realizes, holy crap, here I am eating ice cream making google eyes at the ice cream girl and I've got to meet the president in 10 minutes and then hijacks a passing Prius at cone-point (?)  then maybe that would be congruent with your theme and also mildly amusing if also a bit too easy and perhaps a little silly as well.

But you get the general idea. My main suggestion would be to embody these themes in your characters; give to them this passion that you feel, and let them act it out.

What interests us is what characters do. When a character is forced to act on his principles, we get quickly to the how and what. "Change the world" is abstract. "Build a solar installation in the desert" is concrete. "Persuade others to see the world in a different way" is abstract. "Treat Rwandan genocide victims for PTSD" is concrete. The advantage of giving your themes and passions to a character is that that character will quickly have to start taking visible action.
But then that's just my advice and people will tell you all kinds of things. I suggest, in the matter of what advice to take and what advice to reject, that you ask yourself if what you are hearing sounds like permission to do what is already in your heart. If it is, then follow the advice. If not, then keep looking for what will delight you.

For as viewers and readers, we are looking for what delights you.We are not looking for what somebody in film class told you to do. We are not looking for what you did because you thought you were supposed to. We are not interested in how well you can carry out film-school assignments. We are interested in your own delight and passion and strangeness as reflected in your characters.

So, I am going to go out on a limb and say trust your creative soul.

And now, from one humble soul to another, you can say, "Thank you, Mr. Know-It-All!"

Cary Tennis

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