Master Theme, Secondary Themes and Character Arcs

In the article More on Master Theme, I talk about the necessity of running a Master Theme in your story and some of the common mistakes working with secondary themes. Let’s dig deeper;

Character Arcs and Master Theme

Your protagonist character arc must be directly connected to your Master Theme.

For example;
In Storycraft for Comics, I create a dystopic sci-fi manga concept, ROBOT KIDS, and run with the Master Theme; “Perseverance in the face of adversity leads to success.”
The main character, Kai, starts off as a gullible, close-minded, solider for the tyrannical corporate state. Through the course of the story, Kai is thrown behind enemy lines, where every turn leads to more adversity and more challenges. Despite his million opportunities to give up, he refuses to yield, pushing forward to become an open-minded, wiser, freedom fighter against the very tyrants he once supported (and is successful in defeating them).

Kai’s transformation must be grounded and related to the message I want to express with the entire story.

In contrast, say I had focused Kai’s character arc to reflect his understanding that “good friends are hard to come by.” That’s a great message, but it has nothing to do with “Perseverance in the face of adversity leads to success.”

The hero character arc is the single strongest vehicle for expressing Master Theme in a story. After all, the reader is riding alongside the protagonist for the entire story–what they learn, the reader learns.

If you don’t use the character arc time to express the Master Theme, where else where you express it with such authority? And more importantly, what you do express with the  character arc will then compete with the Master Theme elsewhere throughout the narrative… ultimately, this approach will muddle and fragment the narrative.

In the same way the hero character arc must reflect and support the Master Theme, so should ALL the main characters who arc (which should be all of them, except the villain).

In a single hero story, this shouldn’t be too difficult to execute, but in an ensemble cast story, LOOK OUT! this can quickly become a monumental task (one of the reasons an ensemble cast is much more difficult to pull off well).

When working with an ensemble cast, or single hero story with a larger number of significant support characters, realize that while everyone must be connected to and support the same Master Theme, they should do so from different angles… different approaches. Different expressions and accounts of the same lesson.

In Robot Kids, Kai meets up with Molly, a female rebel who decides to take him in and becoming his love interest down the line. So what could Molly’s expression of the Master Theme, “Perseverance in the face of adversity leads to success,” be?

This one’s pretty easy.

Where Kai gets swept up in the adversity of the story at hand, Molly is a freedom-fighter who’s been living the life for years. Her entire character is steeped in the Master Theme. Molly and her group have gone up against the tyrannical corporations over a hundred times and lost every skirmish. Yet, she hasn’t given up and doesn’t plan to anytime soon; resisting till her last breath is simply in her DNA. She puts it on her sleeve; her perseverance will either lead to victory or death in the end… and only by following the story, her struggle, do we find out if our message (or Master Theme) rings true through her character.


Master Theme and Subplots

Like protagonist character arcs, every one of your major subplots should reflect and support the Master Theme.

Easy peasy. Not much to say on this point, it should be pretty straight forward.

Quick example.

Let’s say the major subplot of Robot Kids, is Molly’s brother being taken prisoner by one of the corporate factions. We only need ask ourselves, how we can ground that event and smaller story, within the context of ‘Perseverance in the face of adversity leads to success?’ A prisoner of war, torture, psychological and physical limits, and a man’s will not to give in, all bring immediate connections to the Master Theme. (Lots to work with there.)

One thing worth noting, which will not be applicable for most folks reading this article, is the caveat of the long-term series. When working on a long-term series, you can potentially take one major subplot and break it off from any current Master Theme, applying it’s own Master Theme. This only works however, if the subplot noted becomes the focus of subsequent issues. An approach similar to Paul Levitz’s “Levitz Paradigm” as noted in Dennis O’Neil’s DC comics guide to writing comics (discussed in the DC book with regards to plot instead of theme specifically).


Secondary Themes and Subplots

At this point you may be thinking with all your character arcs and major subplots supporting the Master Theme, how and where do you highlight secondary themes.

In a nutshell, you don’t… highlight them.

In the realm of literary theme, the only ring to get “blatant” screen time is the one ring that rules them all. While you can certainly have multiple other secondary themes in a story, they must fly in under the radar.

The minute you dedicate time solely for your secondary theme, it competes for dominance with the Master Theme. I touched on this a bit, in the More on Master Theme article.

Let’s complicate things; In truth, you can get away with showcasing a secondary theme, if it meets 2 criteria;

  1. It appears in far fewer frequency than the Master Theme. So by the numbers alone, Master Theme remains dominant.
  2. Anytime the secondary theme appears, narrative drive of the Master Theme does not stop.

While staying true to both of these can yield effective moments of secondary theme, a more potent, effective approach is to work in secondary themes via subtext–actually underlaying it beneath the first layer of Master Theme content.

Let me give a clear example of what I mean here;

Ok, so our Robot Kids story is in a dystopian future, where super advanced technology exists, giant robots, intelligent AI and such, but most of this technology isn’t available to the masses. The masses are left to scrounge and piecemeal old technologies to get by.

Let’s say I wanted to run a secondary theme, something along the lines of, “New technology may be great, but it’s nowhere near as reliable as old technology.”

So for this secondary theme, I could go the least preferred method and dedicate a scene; turn the heroes toward an old robot junkyard when they need repairs and have them stop, and salvage “the only” technology that will work, some good old fashioned scrap tech. If I fall in line with the two criteria above, a few scenes of this would get the theme across…

but I could also slip the secondary theme in more subtly. Have more numerous little comments, actions, and incidents that support the theme, but don’t stop the story and put the focus on it.

In dialogue:

Instead of having the heroes stop at a junkyard for this big search of old tech, one of the main characters could make the repairs as they travel, “Hey, I’m going up top to replace the energy condenser…”  “These damn Titan cold cells, what I wouldn’t do for an a few old fashioned in-line diesel engines.”

In action:

The heroes are forced into battle in an area of high-magnetism, which screws with their advanced computer systems but not any of their older tech system. During the battle it’s the older tech systems that lead them to victory. No one’s actually saying anything about the Secondary Theme, we see it play out before us in action.

In incident:

The heroes enter a village and find out a computer virus is ravaging the Seven Cities, taking out all the corporate war mechs. The virus is spreading so fast leaving the cities basically defenseless, the corporations are scrambling to pull old retired models out of deep storage. Again the secondary theme is expressed, but not on the surface, no one is coming out and saying “new tech bad, old tech good,” but the message comes to the reader loud and clear.


Anchor your arcing characters to your Master Theme. Anchor your subplots to your Master Theme. And develop Secondary Themes through subtext. Add these techniques to your deck of many things and you’ll be a master level wizard of story in no time. ▪

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.