Theme as Character

By Sherry where summer in NoVA is heating back up and I’m hoping it preps me for New Orleans next week

themeascharacterI’ve thought a lot about themes in cozies and what part they play in a book. I’m making a late addition to the post — in this case when I say theme I’m talking about what could also be called the hook of the series and sometimes the occupation of the character.  I realized that theme should be like a character. Before you throw your hands up and think, “The people who think setting is a character are nuts, so this girl has gone completely crazy”, bear with me.

What does a character do in a story? If it’s the protagonist they drive the story, if it’s a minor character they help move the story along, the antagonist impedes the story. Revelations come about and the protagonist’s personality comes through her interactions with the other characters. Is she kind, cranky, suspicious? How she interacts with the theme also reveals character to us.

In my books Sarah goes to and organizes yard sales. She meets lots of different types of people and we find out she’s kind, but stands up for herself. She’s thoughtful but spontaneous. The theme lets us see she loves a bargain, she’s clever, and after a difficult divorce in book one, resourceful. It’s a good way to use that old adage, show versus tell.

what-if-there-wasnt-a-theme_Characters and their voice is what makes us fall in love with a book, it’s what makes us stay with a series, it’s why we root, or get mad, or cry, or laugh. A well integrated theme will do all of those things too. It’s a hook but if it’s done right it’s such an integral part of the the story that it doesn’t stand out as theme but blends as character. It should be important enough to the story that if it was gone, it would feel like a character died. The reader would miss it.

So far Sarah has gone to yard sales, set up New England’s largest yard sale, organized a February Blues yard sale on an Air Force base, and organized smaller yard sales for clients. In All Murders Final she starts a virtual yard sale. Each one of these types of yard sales plays out in a different way. Like a character who is difficult as opposed to one who is overly helpful.

As with any character you have to make sure not to go over the top with your theme. I’ve had a lot of people ask me if Sarah finds clues at the yard sales she goes to. So far the answer has been no — for two reasons. First, it would be a huge coincidence if Sarah did find a clue at a yard sale she went to. Writers have to be very careful with coincidence or readers wouldn’t find the story plausible. Sarah did overhear a conversation at a yard sale in Tagged for Death, but without other things happening the conversation wouldn’t have been important. Second, I want to make things hard for Sarah, just like when she questions someones and they lie or just don’t answer. A yard sale that yields too much would make her life too easy. Some day Sarah might find a clue at a sale but it will have to be carefully integrated.

So readers what do you think? Do you have a favorite theme?

22 Thoughts

  1. So is yard sales the theme of the series, Sherry, or the issue in each book (if there is one)? I’ve honestly never been very clear about theme.

    1. Great question, Edith and I probably should have differentiated between the two in the post. In the cozy world I consider yard sales to be the theme of the Sarah books. Your books have cooking, farming, and midwifery as themes. The word theme in the definition I’m using is probably interchangeable with the hook and sometimes with the occupation. However, each of my books has it’s own theme — trust, owing people, etc.

  2. I’m with Edith – theme is hard for me. I often don’t even glimpse one until the book is done (at least the first draft if not later). And usually other people spot themes I didn’t even know were there!

    1. Isn’t it amazing when someone points out something in your book that you didn’t see? I always wonder if that was lurking in our subconscious or it’s just serendipity.

  3. I will admit that often, a series theme or hook is what draws me to try it, especially if it’s a new author. So I want it to be part of things, but without feeling forced or overdone. But I feel the same way about character. I want well developed character, but I don’t want to get to know them at the expense of the story. And, while I want a strong mystery, I don’t want it to take over and leave the characters flat.

    So I agree with you, the hook is one more thing that needs to be blended into the book to make it work.

  4. Great post, Sherry. I agree that you have to be careful the theme isn’t used as a vehicle for making solving a murder simple. Stan sometimes hears things through clients who purchase her treats and food, but the clues aren’t obvious or coincidental to her business.

  5. Themes are not as important to me as location, setting and characters. But, I do enjoy when I have some interest in the theme that connects me to the story. Although there are a few series I read that have themes that are a bit out of my area of interest, but the setting and characters are so compeling I don’t mind have little interest.

  6. I don’t know if I have a favorite theme, but I enjoy the book more when it’s a theme that interests me. And I do take note of that when I’m reading the description of a book. I like the yard sale theme because I can appreciate a good yard sale.

  7. Sherry, when we lived on base, my mother would drive almost 3 hours just to join me on the rounds of garage sales! I have yet to go to a garage/yard sale that came close to the on base sales! I sometimes dream about those sales with beautiful paired lamps, children’s bikes, sets of silverware, and the time my mother found the perfect picnic basket fully stocked with utensils and red and white checkered cloth, and I found the perfect set of demitasse spoons.

    1. I’ve been to some wonderful base sales too, Reine! I bought almost all of my daughter’s outside Little Tike Toys at base sales plus books, decorative stuff, and furniture.

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