Character Theme vs Setting Theme

Character Theme vs Setting Theme

Main Points
• Character theme is the character’s emotional journey. Setting theme is the setting’s journey.
• Creating a separate character theme and setting theme can be powerful.
• A distinct setting theme can make the world come alive.
• Interweaving character theme and setting theme will make the story more memorable and impactful.
• Having distinct character/setting themes is not always necessary.

Introduction
Theme is one of the most important parts of a story. Themes can be as simple as coming of age, good versus evil, alienation, or they can be complex–“How do good people turn evil?”, “How to overcome trauma?”, etc. A powerful theme unifies the plot, characters, and setting, turning individuals and scenes into explorations of the theme. It defines the growth the character faces. Something I’ve come to realize, however, is there can be different themes for different parts of the book. Setting can have their own individual themes, with side characters, villains, locations, and everything else being variations on that theme. Making a distinction can be powerful, leading to more vibrant worlds.

Of BioShock and BioShocks Beginning to understand–character theme vs setting theme
The first time this really hammered home was playing the video game BioShock (spoilers follow for all games/books mentioned). The story entails a society of free-market individuals building a city under the sea to create an ideological utopia. Horrific disasters ensue when they discover and abuse an addictive substance that gives people superpowers and drives them mad. Since they are free-market extremists, there’s no regulation or inhibition to scientific experiments, even when it costs human lives.

The main character is thrown into a dystopian nightmare full of crazed men and women throwing fireballs and electricity at will. It’s one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played and has profoundly stuck with me over the years. The main reason, I believe, is because of how powerful it combines setting themes and character themes.

Throughout the story, you see remnants of the free-market society that had been flourishing until they all go mad. You piece together clues as to why it fell, who the villains were, what the debates were about. Bosses are unique variations on the theme of free-markets. A plastic surgeon’s madness leads him to horrific experimentation. A crazed artist leads a cult of personality that promotes sadistic art. Even the locations are tied to the theme of free markets gone bad. We fight madmen and madwomen in a fishery, a large private park, shanty towns, and wealthy high rise apartments among others. All around us, the underwater city of Rapture is the setting theme writ large.

The character themes of free will and choice are equally important. Throughout the game, you have the option to rescue or abuse a marginalized group. You get more immediate power if you choose to exploit them. The eventual payoff is greater if you rescue them but it takes longer. This theme is stunningly shown in a mid-game revelation, where you come to realize the main character is not acting of his own free will. He’s actually a genetically engineered clone, unwittingly forced to obey whatever command is given him when someone uses the phrase, “Would you kindly?” The sub-villain, who is the embodiment of extreme free-market ideology, confronts you as the abomination you are to his ideals. He taunts the player, asking (paraphrased), “What makes a man a man? A man chooses. A slave obeys.” It’s a devastating scene that ends in the death of the villain as he poignantly drives home the fact that you’re nothing more than a slave, and your free will is all an illusion.

And herein lies some of the greatest power of BioShock–how it intertwines compelling themes for setting and character. Everything in the city of Rapture ties into these themes.

I started seeing this same division in other games I played. The third game in the series, BioShock Infinite, has a setting theme of American exceptional or the consequences of extremism. We see the parades and beauty of the floating city of Columbia and see the people praying to the American founding fathers. Then we see the darker side of the theme as their society is built on the backs of slaves and marginalized groups who are forced to live in ghettos. We see xenophobia, racism, separate bathrooms for whites and non-whites. Again, everything ties back to the setting theme.

The character theme is personal redemption. We play as a flawed hero, trying to wipe out a personal debt. We see him haunted by the suffering he’s caused and his personal torture for some mistake he made with his daughter. Once again, this game magnificently intertwines the setting and character themes as we go through the game. We find out that the extremism of Columbia came directly from another character’s version of personal redemption. His “salvation” turned him into a genocidal maniac, willing to burn down whole universes to impose his redemption on others. This comes to a head at the climax, where the main character finally chooses his own personal redemption by allowing himself to be drowned from existence. Tying both themes together leaves a powerful impression, making the game have much more staying power than just a typical shooter.

In contrast, BioShock 2, had much more muddled setting themes and character themes. The setting theme attempts to be about extremist socialism, or extremist collectivism. However, there’s not as much connecting the villains, locations, or characters to this idea as there are in the other games. Also, there aren’t as strong character themes. It’s about parenting, or teaching by example, or the power of empathy. Though it plays out as your choices influence another character to be morally good or evil, the theme doesn’t strongly impact the main character. The character themes of free will/redemption are emotionally devastating for the protagonists in BioShock 1/BioShock Infinite. Not so much here. The lack shows, making BioShock 2, in my opinion, the weakest in terms of memorability, staying power, and engagement.

The Power of Themes Staying memorable, staying different
The power of differentiating character themes and setting themes can be profound. By building a separate theme for the setting, the world comes alive, independent from the characters and plot. Both cities of Rapture and Columbia have extra staying power, not just because they’re beautiful and unique, but also because they represent a theme and explore it throughout.

Even more power comes when the setting theme and character theme intertwine, as we’ve seen from both BioShock and BioShock Infinite.

Think about The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen’s main theme is about coming of age and rebellion. But the setting theme is all about hunger and disparity. The world becomes vividly real as we see the extreme poverty forced on the outside districts. It becomes even worse when we see the opulence and waste of the Capital, highlighted in the televised showing of kids killing kids.

Similarly, Harry Potter has a large distinction between character theme and setting theme. It’s a coming of age story/belonging story where the setting theme is all about wonderment or a feeling of magic (literally and figuratively).

It’s this differentiation and intertwining that can make the individual themes add up to more than they are separately. While having this distinction may not be necessary for all books, it can be a powerful tool to unify a story and make it shine. For me, creating a distinct character theme and setting theme then interweaving them is going on my playlist.

But how about you? Do you think there’s an importance to separating out character theme from setting theme? Have you given your settings separate themes? Have you seen this in stories you love? Leave your comments below.

For extra perusal, here’s a list of several games and books with clear distinctions.

Game/Book

Setting Theme

Character Theme

BioShock 1

Free-market ideology pushed to extreme

Free will, choice

BioShock 2

Socialism, collectivism pushed to extreme

Parenthood, teaching by example

BioShock Infinite

American exceptionalism; consequences of extremism

Personal redemption

The Last of Us

Survival; nature taking over

Grief, connection, coming of age

Mistborn

Darkness

Coming of age, revenge

Way of Kings

Chaos

Coming of age, overcoming pain, doing what’s right

Harry Potter

Wonderment (sense of magic)

Coming of age, belonging

Hunger Games

Survival/Poverty

Coming of age, rebellion


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