Themes are Not Enough

A recent trend I’ve noticed in media criticism is to appeal to the thematic core of a work rather than the quality of the work. There’s value in examining themes, of course, looking at them gives us a baseline for analyzing techniques, progression and results. But just presenting themes is not in and of itself a merit of a story. Let’s step back and look at an example.

Jordan Peele’s Us is a horror film. It has themes of examining consumerism and corporate attempts to control American life through advertising. It executes on these themes (so I am told) in clunky, odd and poorly explained ways. Now, I’m not a fan of Jordan Peele, horror or Us. In fact, I’ve never seen the movie and I don’t have a particular dog in any fight about the quality of the film or the execution of its premise. I’ve chosen it particularly because I am about as neutral as it is possible to be regarding the story and its themes, and because it is a good example of the phenomenon I’ve noted before.

Discussions about Us all seem to revolve around, on the one hand, the nonsensical nature of the events it portrays (but come on, guys, it’s a horror film, none of them make sense) and on the other hand the weight of its thematic core. Most critics who are down on the film want the thoughts of the characters to make sense, or the mechanics of the world to be straight forward and sensible. Again, this second element mystifies me since it’s a horror movie and things that make sense kind of undercut the horror part but I can definitely agree with characters having sensible, consistent thoughts. So when a critic presents a series of moments in the film that show characters contradicting themselves for no reason, or the behaviors of the characters duplicates defying the limits and boundaries that supposedly define them, I understand where they’re coming from.

On the other hand, when people appeal to the strength of the themes in Us they tend to simply present the theme as relevant to the culture we live in. Again, I understand this. Us is poking at social stratification and consumerism, problems that exist in our culture . However, defenders of the film rarely do more than point out the elements that play up these themes. In particular, they never point out how playing to those themes necessitates, or at least excuses, the flaws in characterization or consistency that critics constantly harp on. They seem to think that the thematic levels Us works on justifies its failures in execution.

This is wrong.

Understanding and appreciating a work’s themes is fine. Conveying those themes is one of the responsibilities of the creator. But it’s far from the only responsibility. In fact, it’s the barest beginning of competent art. The artist also has a responsibility to clear away any and all obstacles that might obscure the message of their work, and that means creating character consistency, clear cause and effect in the narrative and making sure all other elements of good storytelling are in place. You cannot simply set good themes down as a foundation then throw your plot up in the air and hope it all lands fine. That is sloppy and lazy storytelling.

Let me take a small example from a story I have watched, where a thematic element was actually undermined by its execution. In The Dragon Prince Amaya is the general of the Katolian forces and she’s deaf. Thematically her story is about overcoming obstacles, both those presented by her disability and those that stem from her grief at the loss of her family. That’s a solid theme.

The problem I have is that Amaya is deaf. Being deaf creates all kinds of problems for a person in a leadership position, especially one that has such dire, real time constraints getting information across as military leadership. Amaya needs to be looking at her people to communicate with them, something as simple as a heavy fog can make it impossible for her to pass her orders to anyone who isn’t right next to her. And she lives in a world with magic where fog can appear on command. Add in the very important role of sound in providing situational awareness and making responses to danger possible – very important to the average soldier or general alike – and Amaya is badly in need of some kind of seriously unusual justification for her position. Yet she’s never shown with any more resources on hand to overcome her disability than the average deaf person on Earth.

It’s jarring and, frankly, more than a little pandering. And it feels more like Amaya has her position because she’s the Queen’s sister (or the writers wanted it that way) rather than a competent general. It’s bad storytelling stemming from a failure to think through the characters limits and it undercuts the thematic component of Amaya’s character.

Storytelling is hard, and in part it requires a storyteller to blend clear, mathematical cause and effect events with a strong emotional sense in ways that most people cannot quite achieve. Themes are an important part of that emotional sense but when decoupled from the clear cause and effect themes quickly begin to falter. If you’re dealing with both author and critic who are acting in good faith, pointing out when cause and effect lapses isn’t intended to ignore the strength of those themes, but rather to bolster them. When you stop using themes as a shield against criticism and instead look at themes through the lens of criticism you may even find they come in to sharper focus. Don’t be afraid to put the ideas at the heart of your story under that lens.

Vampires and Themes

So vampires. I hates them. But if vampires were just an oldschool monster that no longer seems quite so intimidating in the light of a modern understanding of biology and contagion then they wouldn’t bother me nearly as much as they do. In fact, they wouldn’t bother me at all because frankly mining old ideas of their themes and adapting them to the modern era is all writers really do. There’s no new stories, just new takes on them. It took a long time for me to work it all out but I knew from about the time I first watched Hellsing (the original anime adaptation not the more recent Hellsing Ultimate which I will most likely never watch) what exactly about vampires that no matter the context or the way they were presented, I would never like vampires and always find myself cringing when they were introduced as characters.

Let’s just start at the top and run down the bothersome baggage vampires have one point at a time. The first is parasitism. Vampires are parasites, pure and simple. We almost never see them building things or influencing people for the good, or if they do it’s handwaved off screen. Central vampiric characters are literal leeches. They tend to only contribute through their manipulative powers (more on this in a sec) but their abilities are fueled by stealing blood from people, usually involuntarily. Sympathetic vampires either justify their parasitism by turning it on their adversaries or feed it some way that they consider harmless like taking blood from the blood bank.

UNRELATED: The best introduction to the “vampires run blood banks to find useful food sources” idea I’ve ever seen is when Dr. McNinja tells the Clone of Benjamin Franklin, “Vampires run the Red Cross you know.”

And Clone of Ben Franklin answers, “Oh, my!”

This happens while they’re riding an elevator in the local Red Cross branch.

BACK TO THE MAIN TOPIC

While at first glance only taking blood from murderers or blood banks doesn’t seem so bad the fact is the vampire is still a parasite and unable to do avoid destructive actions. Murderers aren’t the only ones who need justice, so do the families of victims. They need closure and a sense of finality, things they’ll never get that if a vampire just randomly offs the murderer before it happens. (And let’s face it – encounters with hunger vampires are pretty much always fatal with one exception – which we’ll talk about in a second.) The fact that our existing legal system is bad at providing closure and finality for victims does not justify a vampire robbing victims of those things as well.

Likewise, blood banks exist for people who need blood transfusions and they are often dangerously low on reserves and that’s without vampires chowing down on huge amounts of blood and making the reserves even lower. Regardless of what they do, vampires are taking from the world around them and giving nothing in return.

Well talk some more about parasitism in a second but I’m going to talk about points one and two together and point two is that vampires are irredeemable. They are never cured. EVER.

On an intellectual level, I get that. Vampires are creatures that are already dead but, for whatever reason, keep having an impact on the living. You can’t just undo their death – in fact they’re often undead because someone tried just that – and so there’s no way to fix their condition unless resurrecting people is a part of your story’s schtick and that’s generally a bad idea because it’s hard to maintain verisimilitude when your actions have no consequences. So cheating death = bad plots as well as bad other things.

But on a thematic level it effectively removes free will from the equation. And that makes your characters puppets of FATE (or the author but, you know, that’s one of the things your audience isn’t supposed to think about while immersed in your story). Yeah, I know, the vampires have this hunger and they can’t continue to survive without it blah, blah, blah.

You know what I have to say to that? Human beings have starved themselves to death to protest things. Or set themselves on fire. Or just willingly walked OFF OF CLIFFS just because they chose to obey the orders of their general over preserving their own lives.

According to legend Alexander the Great actually intimidated a city into surrendering to him that way, by the by.

So the themes of parasitism and irredeemability come together to create a truly horrific message behind vampires, whether they be antagonistic or sympathetic. Basically, every time you put a vampire into a story, you say that people with problems cannot be fixed. Kleptomaniac? He’ll never get over it, you’ll just have to pay for the stuff he stole. Video game addict? Better just make sure he stays fed while he’s lost in his fantasy worlds. Drug addict? Make sure he doesn’t overdose! Violent? Better just slap him in jail.

Stop and think about this for a second. Vampires can only be dealt with in two ways. They can be allowed to exist as a burden on society, with the people around them trying to somehow keep them out of trouble regardless of the cost, or they can be destroyed if they can’t or don’t want to be controlled. You can be an enabler or an annihilator. People with problems have no way out.

It’s the exact opposite of the idea that a problem, no matter how hideous it may seem at first glance, can be overcome. It may take sacrifice and hard work and painful amounts of compassion, it may take a realistic attitude and acceptance of the fact that you can and sometimes (frequently) will fail, but it can be overcome. The two ideas are polar opposites, and of the two I will take the second immediately and always.

But there’s one more implication of vampires that makes their popularity in this day and age both surprising and disgusting. Unlike the previous two points, this is something that’s come into the vampire mythos only with their updating to the modern age. And in particular, with the vampire’s use as a “romantic” protagonist.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. Vampires are naturally horrific creatures. They drink blood and ruthlessly destroy people who come after them in an attempt to hold them accountable for their crimes. They manipulate people through telepathy or the use of their blood as some kind of a brainwashing drug. And, once again, they drain blood from their victims in order to gain power.

How is it possible, in the age of feminism and it’s many mixed blessings, advanced psychology and widespread literary criticism, that no one has realized vampires are directly analogous to AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP?!

How can we look at vampires, their physical appearance, their manipulative sexual maneuvering and their chemical and emotional manipulation of of their victims and only see an abstract symbol of “the forbidden” or “the other” or “the unknown” and not admit to ourselves that vampires are horrific abusive monsters? When we say it’s just the way they are or the romantic interest will change them or that the way the vampire cares for their romantic interest makes them different we are giving the exact same excuses battered spouses give for not leaving their abusive partner! It’s like culture as a whole has been sucked into an abusive relationship with vampires and we can’t admit to what we’ve stumbled into! Thousands and thousands of young people are reading stories that present abusive partners as not only acceptable but desirable! Where is the outcry?

It would almost be acceptable if the vampire in the story were an abusive partner who the romantic protagonist eventually broke up with. Except then we’re slipping into the first two thematic problems, the flaws of which I’ve already discussed. Yes, I believe even abusive spouses can be redeemed and healed. But doing it from in a romantic relationship is very, very dangerous and not behavior that should be encouraged.

But encourage it is exactly what every vampire love story I’ve heard of does. They show the POWER OF LUV changing the vampire protagonist, magically giving the vampire to control their urges and treat the other half of the couple in a way totally different from the way they treat everyone else. That’s great for creating romantic feelings in the readership but the message is that if you just stand by your partner, no matter how abusive, eventually your love will change them. Which, in real life, almost never actually works and is frequently traumatic and sometimes fatal for the people trying it.

It’s unhealthy, and I hate what it says about us as a society that we haven’t challenged this idea at all. When you take it as a whole, between the unfortunate message about personal problems being unsolvable, enabling being encouraged and abusive behavior being glorified I find vampires to be a pretty despicable addition to works of fiction. So this Halloween, consider taking your fake fangs and tossing them in the trash and forswear vampires and their horrible themes for good. There are plenty of better things to do with your time.

Themes

Writing is the process of taking ideas and putting them down on paper. All ideas have consequences, both the immediate and the more abstract, and exploring those consequences is part of what writing exists for. Most of the immediate consequences of ideas are explored in the plot, the series of events that the protagonist and his or her immediate sphere of influence are involved in. And, of course, the characters themselves  Themes, on the other hand, are a little bit different.

Let’s take a fairly well known work of fiction and examine the themes in it, shall we?

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a classic work of literature. It goes beyond stagecraft – people read the play just to get at the rich literary depth therein. Among other things, we still occasionally hear of the dangers of becoming a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hopefully you’re familiar with the story already, if not, or if you’re rusty, the Wikipedia page can bring you up to speed.

There are basically three themes in Hamlet:

Death. (Newsflash – everyone dies at end of Shakespearean tragedy!) The play begins in the aftermath of a murderer and doesn’t end until almost every last character we’ve seen on stage for the past few hours has suffered of poison, blade or both!

Revenge. The death of Hamlet’s father is what sets things in motion and his quest for revenge is the driving force behind the plot.

Insanity. Not only does Hamlet feign insanity and his lady love actually go insane, the presence of a ghost that many people see, yet others do not, suggests that more might actually be insane than is readily apparent. Of course, Hamlet’s thirst for vengeance looks a lot like insanity as well, complete with grizzly consequences in the death of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And some might say that the drive to murder that we see in Claudius and Gertrude is a kind of insanity as well.

Now you might say that these themes are a part of the plot – and you’re right. But where plot and characters exist in a kind of dialog, with characters able to adapt to the plot or the plot following characters as they run off the beaten path, themes constrain them both.

In Hamlet there are many opportunities for characters to avoid death. Something as simple as not believing the words of a ghost that could be a figment of the imagination or a demon in disguise would have kept Hamlet from his path of revenge. Instead, the themes of the story keep the characters and plot from wandering off track.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again, the primary purpose of fiction is to provoke a reaction from the reader. Every aspect must be carefully tailored with an end in mind, every plot point drive towards the eventual end of the story. Now the audience might not walk away with your desired reaction in mind but that’s just the nature of art. The point is to allow the drive to structure your art, that it might be as clear and as meaningful as possible. Even if the audience sees things differently than you, the strength of your purpose will come through in some form.

Themes are what give your story that strength. Just as the skeleton gives your body a great part of its strength, anchoring your muscles, so theme is a vital part of what anchors plot and character and keeps them from fighting one another. Hamlet’s themes are what keep the character Hamlet’s rage strong yet let him give his despairing “to be, or not to be” soliloquy. They allow for glimpses of humor, but only from gravediggers plying their trade. Ultimately, they allow us to feel the full weight of the decision to murder and to avenge.

Your themes are an essential part of your story. If you are going to write, you must start with a theme. Let it shape your plot, your characters and drive you to your ultimate ends. Don’t throw out things that don’t fit with your theme – that’s what Graveyarding is for – but keep your eye firmly on the goal. It will make your writing that much stronger.