Theme Juggling: Steven Savage
This first appeared as a post in April 2011.
You ever have one of those moments where you just don’t have a handle on a character? You can’t figure out what they should do next, you can’t get into their head, they just sort of sit there in your mind? It’s frustrating, especially when it’s a character you know well – or thought you knew.
Sometimes characters have a life of their own – and that includes being as mysterious or stubborn as a real person. It takes a little work to break that creative logjam and get to know them in a way that re-ignites them to life. I want to share one of my ways of doing that.
The technique I’ve found effective is this: sometimes you have to look at the character from a different literary theme, genre, or even setting. You ask yourself who the character would be if the theme of your story or even your entire genre was different. It doubtlessly sounds a bit odd, so let me give an example.
Let’s say you’re writing a low-fantasy story, involving conspiracy and intrigue, where the protagonist is a swordswoman investigating the death of her mentor. A classic tale of revenge and transformation, in an admixture of blood and sorcery, a good solid tale – and a refreshing change from the usual fantasy hero.
Unfortunately, you’re stuck on what to do with her. You’ve got your setting, your intrigue, your diagram of plots; but you’re not sure about her – and feel you should be.
Now, look at the story and ask: what if the plot remained the same, but the genre changed? What genres, in fact, are hidden within the tale?
She’s investigating the death of someone important to her. It may be a mixture of intrigue and action – but in a way, isn’t this also a murder mystery? It is also a vigilante story, a tale of an unpunished crime, of passions, of intrigue . . .
. . . and now you see the story as something else. It’s a mystery tale, perhaps even a film noir story of darkness and conspiracy. In a mystery story (perhaps even one that’s not in a fantasy setting but a real-world one), what would your heroine be like? Take it further now – and ask who she’d be in an Otto Preminger film or in a dark modern crime drama.
Would she be like the private detective who is scrunching to get by? Would she be the two-fisted vigilante – who may be easily manipulated? Would she be like a bloodless coroner who can look at a horrible murder and piece the clues together?
Who would she be if the tale was told differently – or even in a different setting?
Imagine now you settle on the bloodless coroner. She’d be methodical, observant, every act of violence she’s seen (or done) or cleaned up after is imprinted in her mind. She can look at stains and wounds and understand death, what caused it, and who did it.
Now, switch back to your fantasy setting. Suddenly you have a better handle of her – she’s got a detective-like mind when it comes to death. She’s probably very good at understanding how people died – maybe she’s too good and makes people nervous. Maybe they should be nervous because she’s almost an instinctive investigator in an age of magic and superstition.
Maybe she even has a few people she calls on in her quest for vengeance. An alchemist with strange potions that can reveal blood or force people to tell the truth. A Necromancer who can talk to the recently dead, and is the ultimate investigator. Hmmmm . . . maybe break the stereotypes a bit more and make the Necromancer a love interest, because who doesn’t like a mysterious and slightly dangerous love interest . . .
Your heroine just became a lot more interesting because you saw her differently. She just became more filled out, got some friends, got a romance subplot, and is going to be an enjoyable mix of action heroine and intellectual. A little genre-bending and theme-switching opens the mind and airs out our characters.
This is one of my favorite techniques for shaking up my understanding of writing, characters, plots, and even settings. Take a moment and imagine the character in a different genre or a different setting and see what you learn about them.
A heroic solider? Perhaps he’s like a knight of old – but is his nobility crossed with rigidity or ignorance? Maybe he’s a person of high technology and embraces the latest tools – making him a kind of science-fiction character in modern times.
That wily wizard? Maybe he’s like a hacker out of a cyberpunk novel, eternally tweaking things and taking on the Big Powers – which in this case may be spiritual or demonic. On the other hand, he might be a kind of wacky inventor, with weird and wonderful spells for all situations – much to the regret of his friends.
Your futuristic starship captain? She could be like a female Horatio Hornblower in the future. Maybe she’s got an explorer’s streak and she’s like a classic frontierswoman.
Play with genres and themes and see what they teach you about your characters. You’ll probably be surprised – and pleasantly so.
And now, I’m trying to imagine what a lovelorn Necromancer does to get the attention of a woman capable of taking down an entire bar with a chair leg. Hey, in a way the story would be about two people finding romance despite being so professionally focused, just like a good modern romantic comedy . . .
. . . you see what I mean.
Steven Savage, self-described “professional geek”, is the author of the Fan to Pro blog and books (Unlocking Career Insights With Your Hobbies and Progeek Rising), has his own web site, and incidentally is the mind behind the popular Seventh Sanctum site.