Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

What is the hierarchy of a novel and why is it necessary to get it properly organized before your start typing?

Without an underlying theme, all hope is lost!

I remind new authors of this over and over, but my words often fall on deaf ears. Why? Because, I suppose “finding” a theme is demanding.

But without a theme, the words in your novel won’t mean much at all, your audience won’t be able to connect with the story, there will be nothing to motivate the characters, no reason for them to exist, nothing to motivate the plot, and no satisfying conclusion will be reached. So I say again, without theme, all hope is lost! 

1: Theme: what is the main idea or the underlying meaning (or message) you will explore in this narrative?

Think of the theme as your authoring sat nav. If you have a theme, you will know where you are going (and so will your characters!) Yes, it is true, from time to time you might get lost, but your theme will take you back onto the road, away from trees and fields. Yes, theme will be your path and the one true direction!

  • The Star Wars theme: an individual in the right place, at the right time, doing the honorable thing, can bring down a great empire
  • The Lord of the Rings theme: will power corrupt even the innocent heart? Will evil ultimately defeat itself?
  • The Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone theme: Can anyone learn the value of humility?
  • The Dune theme: what is the most powerful influence on a character, free will or fate?

Theme is always at the top of the hierarchical structure

From the thematic top line comes the character, the point of view, the setting, the style of your book and and together with it, the plot will be formed. But you will have to ask yourself a few questions to figure out the next line in your novel’s hierarchy and define your central character. So here goes…

2: What type of character can best experience and / or explain your theme?

Read (again) the theme of Star Wars (above) and think about this? What type of character is in the best position to explore the concept that a single individual, in the right place, at the right time, might bring down an empire? Isn’t it undeniable that such a protagonist would have to be an exceedingly brave individual who, perhaps by chance, is “chosen” to be a hero? What traits would such a protagonist possess? Personal independence? Survivability? The ability to think around problems? Determination? Bulldog stubbornness? Inventiveness? Audacity? What about negative traits? What about the fact that this character must be a loner, standoffish, a troublemaker, maybe even a sociopath… surely an outcast?

You can do the same type of reverse engineering for the Lord of the Rings theme. The theme here is “does power corrupt even the virtuous heart?” so my thoughts are that the protagonist in LoTR must have one essential quality: an innocent heart. But what negative traits do we associate with innocence? Childish naivety? Simplicity? Surliness? Insouciance? See how understanding the theme, then connecting the central character with that theme, helps you to organize your mind and establish a novel hierarchy? Let’s say, for example, you’ve established your protagonist must possess childish naivety, and so might be petulant and distant. Why not portray this character as a child, perhaps not literally but figuratively? You might choose to portray this innocent-hearted character as unconventional, uncommunicative, easily susceptible, humble, and probably even small (in terms of stature) a lot smaller than the other characters around him? Perhaps you’d invent a “hobbit” for this role!

So, from the theme, we progress to the principal protagonist, and outline him/her, it, them as the next line in your novel hierarchy. And then comes…

3: What type of character would thwart or impede your main character’s focus / mission / goal?

If we continue to look at the Star Wars example, given above, it would be quite easy to portray an altogether “bad” character who would be diametrically opposed to the hero’s mission and thus become an obvious protagonist. In the Star Wars example, that person would represent or personify the great empire that the lone protagonist is destined to overthrow. But why does the most powerful person in the galaxy give a damn about a paltry insect-like nothing? The whole point of Luke in this story is that he’s a “nothing” in the vastness of an imperiously controlled universe. The almighty emperor considers individuals like Luke to be nothing more than gnats on the rump of his domain, he thinks Luke is so minuscule he doesn’t even warrant the thought or effort involved in being brushed aside.

And indeed, although George Lucas described a dark overlord figure (Palpatine) he only mentioned the character briefly in the original tale. Palpatine was never Skywalker’s “natural” antagonist: Why? Was it because Palpatine is too distant? Too remote? Too immovable? I daresay that is what George Lucas was thinking when he created an equally terrifying & intimidating “under emperor” character who’d become Luke’s primary antagonist in the saga. We know this character to be Darth Vader and we also now know that Vader has an invisible bond with the protagonist (as Anakin Skywalker) that adds another dramatic layer to the overall atmosphere.

So choose your antagonist deliberately & attentively, before adding him/her/it/ or they to the next line of your novel hierarchy… then we move on to…

4: What point of view will you employ to tell this story?

Will you be in this story? No? If not, through whose eyes will it be understood?

If you are telling the story from the main protagonist’s point of view, remember that her/his/its/their perspective will be at least partially skewed, and perhaps even flawed; the way I describe a protagonist’s P.O.V. is that it becomes lopsided! It’s not their fault, it’s just the way things are in the world you create for them. This possibility might work out fine for you if you’re happy with the protagonist’s lopsided view of the world, and perhaps it will be easier to work with one-sided attitudes if you also plan to tell the story from the other side, i.e. the antagonist’s angle. But you can overcome all this bilateral symmetry if you simply tell the story through the eyes of another! Yes, if you choose a complementary “player” as your primary narrator, you will add shades, shadows, and textures of awareness that your reader will relate and respond to. Plus, your tale won’t become cut-and-dried.

Also, a supplemental character might be in a better position to “see both sides” in any conflict and will even “see what’s coming” (for both goodie and baddie) which will add tension to your story. So choose your main P.O.V.carefully. By the way, the protagonist and antagonist can still be point of view characters, but once you bring in a subsidiary point of view, you’ll find, I’m sure, that the perspectives and the strengths/weaknesses of those major characters will be more efficiently explored by the third party.

I started this section by asking if you were in your story. Are you? If so, what role do you play? If you play the “good guy” then remember you’ll be subject to the same biases and flaws that he/she/it/they will suffer. That’s because you and the character are connected. So, your point of view will be reduced. Is this a good thing for an author curator of a story? Do you want to have a narrow view of the events? Or do you want a wider view? The other way to “be in the story” is to become an omniscient storyteller (as witnessed in all the great classics, including the works of Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot), but even this approach (frequently rejected these days) has a narrator that becomes influenced by prejudices and one-sidedness. Be wary! If you absolutely must tell your story in the first-person I heartily recommend you inhabit the complementary “player” i.e. the supplemental P.O.V. character.

Once you have decided on your point of view character(s) they will form the fourth line of your novel hierarchy. And so we move to…

5: Where (when) is the story set?

The setting, the imaginary world-building or fictional universe building can only begin once you have chosen a theme and have selected players for the major roles, and agreed upon a supporting character who will “tell a balanced tale.” 

So, once those things are completed, and you have established, for example, that your hero grew up on a homestead in the “middle of nowhere” and only has inanimate objects for friends, you are already painting yourself into a setting. Do you see? Add a subsidiary character who navigates a ship (otherwise how would your hero get away from the homestead and into adventure, that will lead to a scuffle with an evil emperor?) and draw this supplemental character as a pirate-rover and you have the beginnings of an imaginary world. For instance, you’ll have to describe his vessel and perhaps introduce another member of his crew, wont you? Do you see how you are already part way into the process of world-building (around a theme) because you had the good sense to put your novel hierarchy into logical order.

You might try to experiment (in your mind) with alternate settings for events, maybe Pirates of the Caribbean, or a medieval Europe or Wild West (these settings might work just as well as a saga set in space), but my advice is to let your characters take you into the setting rather than trying to force them into an environment that is uncomfortable for them and that neither they (nor your theme) can survive, or adapt to.

I see many authors trying to force their characters into a fictional world that doesn’t fit the general plan. The fictional world many authors create (too early, in my opinion, i.e.before deciding on other essential parts of the novel hierarchy) can deliver chapters that become saturated with challenges and obstacles… so many problems that they soon get bogged down in a quagmire of lore and back-story. Either that or these same authors keep adding new bits of explanation to make good sense of it all, which is infuriating for the reader. (Mind you, if you’re the type of author who enjoys dealing with challenges, constraints, and deprivations caused by setting, go for it!) 

So, that’s where the setting fits into the hierarchy. What’s next?

6: Plot or Style? What comes next?

The last line in your novel’s hierarchy before you start laying-down-words depends on whether you choose plot or style to be the driver of your work. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl are all excellent examples of plot-driven novels. You are familiar with this type of work. Is this how you want yours to go?

What is the alternative? What is a style-driven novel? How is it different from a plot-driven jobbie?

Well, your story might be an allegory for something altogether different, perhaps using figures and / or symbolic actions to reveal (or hide) some meanings. This is what the literary academics call stylism. For example, is Aslan the lion in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia a figure of Christ? If so, and this is an allegorical bible tale, it means Lewis could formulate his plot around the double-meaning. Or take Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which, on-the-surface, is about the Salem witch trials that happened in 1692 but is really about blacklisting Communist sympathizers in early 1950s America. Once Miler had chosen this style, he used it as his driver. Or take the Star Wars saga: is it an allegory of the Holy Bible with Anakin as the character of Lucifer and Luke as a prophesied son who is sent to free the galaxy from the dark side (sin) but doubts his purpose, then sacrifices himself, so others might live in freedom? If this was the style that Lucas chose, then it was also the controller of this grand epic. Is this why the whole saga has a religious “feel” to it. Do you see?

Another example is the Harry Potter stories: are these allegorical interpretations for what it’s like to be a working-class British person living in a kingdom that’s ruled by aristocrats and high-born ruling classes who all “look down on” those of mixed blood and/or inferior heritage? See how choosing the style, at an early stage, helps to boost and direct a plot?

If you choose style-over-plot, (style first, plot second) I think you may find that your plot runs effortlessly and steadily. And you don’t run out of ideas. You will also find, if you follow this path, that you are thinking more about images (visual symbolism or figurative language) than you would otherwise have done. And this type of artistic thinking will add to an enriching experience for your readers. You might also find this path will influence your creative writing and might even influence the dialogue you use for major characters.

Good luck with all this, and please let me know how you get on with setting your theme and  deciding on your novel hierarchy.

But here it us again, to recap:

THEME

Protagonist

Antagonist

Narrating Character

Setting

Style

Plot  

Words: @neilmach October 2021 ©

To participate in my FREE online creative imaginicity exercises over the next few weeks, follow my social media here

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Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

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