Themes and Characters

Today is a day of realism. Character, some say, is everything; yet, notwithstanding the preachers, plots control the market. It is just here that the new writer often makes his final mistake. "Character," he argues "may well enough be the highest form of my art; but the story of plot and action is the story that is wanted; therefore, I'll simply drop this foolish attempt to be real. Thrills are the thing." That man has only half read his magazines. The thrills are there, plots and action obvious to the dullest; but there, too, is character, often as real as anything done by the great names we still worship. It is time for us all to realize that there is a new spirit over the land; and the writer who can not come into rapport with this spirit is a relic of dead days.

We have outgrown the age of Arabian story-tellers, and the age of character-studies, too, is slipping by. We are coming into the age of themes—something more than character, something better than mere story; something that embraces— that almost necessitates—both character and plot, yet is of a higher development than either. Perhaps a cursory examination of contemporary short-stories would not make this evident; for, excepting the leading writers of our younger school, most story-tellers seem to be still in the bonds of either plot or character—one, to the exclusion of the other. We have, in fact, two schools, with a third school as yet barely inaugurated. Most of us are striving to be hailed as pupils of the character delineators or the makers of Arabian Nights; but perhaps it has never occurred to us that, in short-story writing, as in everything else, there is a golden mean. This will be found in the theme. It creates the plot; it creates the characters; it— and it only—gives unity to the action.

In a well-developed theme, the plot will not be a manufactured one; it will seem to be the theme itself, and the latter will hardly be noticed by the unreflective reader—the person who lives on thrills. The theme, then, makes its own plot, and, if it is what it should be, it will of necessity create its own characters. Take, for example, Stevenson's "Markheim." With that theme, Stevenson could have imagined no other persons than the weak, falling, uncertain murderer, and the grasping, self-sufficient, yet lonely miser. They were absolutely necessary; they grew out of the theme, formed their characters about it, and, in an instant were alive. So, too—to take a longer example—was born Jekyll-Hyde. That theme, we know, was in Stevenson's mind for years before he wrote the final story; it took longer for the characters to be conceived and born; but until Dr. Jekyll came into the author's world, that story could not be written. He tried it repeatedly; he failed until the theme spontaneously gave him the one character that could carry it to a successful conclusion.

Our magazines are full of stories without themes, but here and there one stands out very distinct among its crowd of shadowy fellows, and, when examined, that story will be found to contain a distinct theme, from which the writer has never deviated. The plot, the characters, are essential—are inseparable parts of the whole; there is nothing lacking, and even when the execution is weak, the conception carries everything before it—and sells the story.

First of all, find your theme; let it wholly possess you. From it will come the plot and the characters; you will find your men and women spring out, armipotent, like pagan Pallas. We have now so many masterpieces, that it is difficult to cite any particular ones as the best examples of the stories possessed by their themes. Most of Kipling's work, however—excepting the few that are not even stories—Doyle's "Round the Red Lamp," Henry James' "Lessons of the Master," or Thomas Hardy's "Group of Noble Dames," would serve for examples. In Bunner's "Love in Old Clothes" the love theme is handled in a manner that the young masters may envy. It is Jack London's themes—the somewhat savage shivers of barbarian peoples. and atavistic civilizations—that have made him his place in contemporary work. In all these the theme, from the first word to the last, is crying to you.

Have strong themes, have real themes, and your story will be real and strong.

This, in a measure, is an apotheosis of realism; but for all that it is the art of the present. Moreover, this realism has something ideal about it; our strongest story-tellers may picture scenes and persons with the fidelity of the camera, but in most cases those scenes and persons are wholly imaginative. Yet imagination, some say, has little to do with modern work. They are very wrong; our literature is, first of all, imaginative, and only our journalistic stories are written as a reporter annotates a prize-fight. Be realistic—but imagine your realism, draw life-like characters—but create them in your own soul. The world is full of hints, but never let the hints be more than the levers to start your brain-machinery.

This ideal realism is, it seems to us, not generally understood. As character students, or as adventure-makers, young writers are prone to be extreme. In one case the plot, very likely, has carried the author's imagination away "on the wings of the morning," and he has forgotten everybody but himself; he is playing at living, as the boys play Indian or pirate. His Jane and John are of putty, and ready to crumble to pieces when they dry. They are man and woman only in so far as they have legs, arms, tongues, and some sort of universal sentiment. The new character artist, on the other hand, is lost in his puppets; he forgets his plot, his very theme—if he has one—and is as minute in his delineation as Balzac at his worst. This is art, doubtless; good art in a sense; yet no one cares for it except the dilettantish children of New England, or those whose intellects are poisoned by toast and tea.

At the first thought, imagination—in its sense of creation— and character delineation may seem somewhat contradictory. Character work, it could be argued, is a study of "things as they are"; of persons as God, environment, and heredity made them; and imaginative personages are apt to be putty and paint, or, if not that, then only semi-human, with the hearts of angels or demons, Calibans or Ariels, belonging to the world of romance rather than the world of life. Knowledge, it is said, is the one requisite for the story-teller of to-day. But one person's knowledge will not extend very far on earth. If we write from knowledge alone, we are apt to write ourselves, our wives, and our best character-discoveries, into innumerable stores; always the same faces and hearts and passions, changing but the clothes and the visible symbols of class and caste. We will be playing but a chord or two of the extravagant medley, Life.

After all, art depends upon both knowledge and imagination. With the one, you can work at any time; with the other, you must wait until, in the cant phrase, the spirit moves you. It does no good to force the imagination; nothing worth while results. We must have knowledge for the daily work, but let us cultivate patience, letting the imagination take care of itself. And it will take care of itself, if we employ it upon our themes.

Knowledge, once stored in the mind, is at hand whenever we need it. We may never consciously remember a hardly acquired bit of "local color," but when the theme comes that needs that color, we will find it forming itself in words with all the fire of inspiration. So with the plot and the characters, but the theme itself can never be made. It is as much of an inspiration as the fiery, soul-heavy poem; however suggestive to our mind, it comes with a distinct shock—the subjective mind crying it to the objective—and we feel as if some one outside ourselves had called to us, even as voices called to the mystics of old days.