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Monday, June 4, 2018

How Theme and False Theme Affect Your Protagonist

I attended Amanda Rawson Hill's class on theme several weeks ago and was simply blown away with it and within minutes knew I had to ask her to let me share some of it on my blog. Theme is a topic that's been on my mind for the last few months, and I touched on it in my last post "Preach vs. Teach." When I attended Amanda's class, she put words to many aspects about theme that had been rolling around in my subconscious that I hadn't yet figured out and she also taught me completely new ideas about it.

Lately I've been looking at theme from a question and answer standpoint (the story asks us to consider and explore questions about a topic, and the thematic statement gives us the answer--illustrated through the story), which is great but only one way to look at it, and I loved Amanda's approach. So she's here today to share a section from her class: how theme and false theme affect the protagonist.


The theme of a novel can feel like a slippery thing. For many authors, it’s more of an afterthought. Once the book is finished and they know plot and setting and character, then maybe they’ll ask themselves what the theme is. But theme is key to creating an emotionally powerful and coherent novel, one that leaves an impression on the reader’s heart.

One of the ways an author can be more intentional about theme is by considering how it impacts their main character. We do that, first, by being able to verbalize what our theme is. Remember that the theme of a novel is a COMPLETE SENTENCE. It’s the message of your book.

Some examples of theme are

Moana: You know who you are when you know where/who you come from.

Hamilton: You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Zootopia: Change begins with me.

Harry Potter: Love is the most powerful force on earth.

Now, if the theme is the message of the book, then it should be what you are leaving your reader with. It’s the truth that your main character finally understands at THE END of the story.

But that means they can’t understand or believe the truth of the theme at the beginning of the story. If they do, then there is no growth or change in the character and you have a boring book.

So at the beginning of the book, your main character either doesn’t believe or misunderstands the theme in some way. I call this the FALSE THEME STATEMENT. K.M. Weiland refers to it as “The Lie Your Character Believes.”

For example:

At the beginning of Moana, her family and everyone on the island keep telling Moana that she is just who she is right now, that everything is about the island and where they are right now.

At the beginning of Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton believes he can create and control his legacy by laying hold of every opportunity and not throwing away his shot.

At the beginning of Zootopia, Officer Hopps sees the bias in everyone around her and is bound and determined to prove them wrong by being the first bunny cop. There is no checking of her own biases.

At the beginning of Harry Potter, he is just the boy in the cupboard under the stairs. Alone, unloved, and powerless.

The FALSE THEME or “Lie” can take a few different forms. It can be something that is the complete opposite of the true theme. Like in Hamilton. It can also be a belief that isn’t taken far enough, for example not applying it to everyone or not applying it to oneself, like in Zootopia. It could just be a case of wrong priorities, like in Moana. Or maybe, it’s something your main character just can’t even really wrap their head around (Harry Potter) or feels some kind of shame around, like in A Quiet Place (think of how the theme is “You must protect them” and Jon Krasinski’s character is definitely trying but is reeling from his failure at the beginning of the movie. It’s not necessarily that he believes he can’t, it’s that he tried and failed before. And that guilt is haunting him and everyone else in the family.)

Once you have the FALSE THEME STATEMENT at the beginning and the true THEME STATEMENT at the end, you now have the beginning and ending points of your main character’s arc! And what the plot needs to do is effectively change your character from believing the false theme to truly understanding and internalizing the true theme.

Harry Potter ends up surrounded by loved ones both past and present, which strengthen him to overcome Voldemort's power through an ultimate act of sacrificial love and learns that his family "had never left."

The other thing the FALSE THEME STATEMENT provides for you is a starting point in creating your character. If you know the lie your character believes, then you have a foundation for building a character who would actually believe it.

You can create this character by answering questions like:

Why does my character believe this? What happened in his/her backstory to cause this belief?

What problems has this belief caused in the character's life?

How does this belief affect my character’s relationships?

What does the false belief make my character hide? What does it make them do?

Does it give them any quirks or habits?

Does it require any kind of self-defense mechanisms?

What does it make them push away? What does it make them welcome?

Because of the false belief, what will make my character scared/uncomfortable/happy/etc.?

There are many other ways that THEME should be an intentional part of your novel but building it into your main character is one of the biggest!

If you loved this and want to hear more about Amanda's approach to theme, she recently did a post at Writers Helping Writers on how theme relates to subplots, supporting characters, and tension. I highly recommend it!


Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in Southwestern Wyoming with a library right out her back gate. (Which accounts a lot for how she turned out.) After earning her BA in Chemistry at Brigham Young University, she lived all over the US, finally settling in Atwater, California with her husband and three kids. Her debut middle-grade novel, THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC, releases September 25, 2018 from Boyds Mills Press.


  1. This is fantastic! I've read a lot of Weiland's posts on the 'Lie' so I'm familiar with the concept, but I think this helps it become more easily approachable. Thanks for sharing. ^_^

    1. Yes, Weiland is so good. I love her. But Amanda is great too!

  2. What an excellent post, Amanda. I learned a variation of this from Lisa Cron. All the luck with your new release. I've shared this post online and will connect with you, Amanda, on social media.

    Thanks so much for sharing this with your followers, September.



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