Thematic casting is when you base your characters around a central theme. Take the Fanastic Four as a fairly simplistic example of thematic casting. Mr Fantastic represents ‘water, Sue is ‘air’, the Human Torch is ‘fire’ and the Thing is ‘earth’; all four of the basic elements as understood by alchemists. The Planeteers from Captain Planet follow the same theme, adding ‘heart’ to the mix. In the Avatar series, the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra used the same for the various ‘benders’. Many children’s cartoons use thematic casting, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be used as a sophisticated writing tool.
When I think of sophisticated thematic casting, I think of Neil Gaiman’s Endless from his Sandman series. The Endless are seven siblings who rule the aspects of existence: Destiny, Death, Dream (Morpheus, then Daniel), the twins Desire and Despair, Destruction and Delirium (who used to be Delight). This list is also their ‘birth’ order. The Endless are above the gods, as even gods are subject to their forces. Dream is the titular protagonist of the Sandman series, with his siblings often taking centre stage in the plot and action.
The original Dream, who goes by the name Morpheus, is a Byronic hero, so that even the modern day version of him reminds me of a Victorian character, something thought up by Edgar Allan Poe. It isn’t a stretch to see him as a Steampunk character, with his sombre clothing and attitude. Of course, as the King of Dreams, he is also the font of inspiration for inventions and scientific discovery.
Death might seem at first glance to be the original Goth chick, but her nature is sunny, rational, and optimistic. I love Gaiman’s version of Death in the Sandman, as she breaks nearly every stereotype associated with character. Thematic casting doesn’t mean two dimensional characterization. It is meant to inspire and create a framework and structure; it isn’t meant to be a cage to entrap your creativity.
As a writer, I love thematic writing, because it create deeper meanings to resonate with my audience. The Steampunk literary genre is easily adaptable to thematic casting, with the rich pickings of the Industrial Era available for inspiration. The various parts of a motor, the different types of metals, popular Victorian novels, the different sort of velocipedes, the items of clothing unique to the era … all of this and more is available for reinterpretation in your cast of characters.
I started off using ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as my inspirational stepping-off point for my characters in my Steampunk Work-in-Progress. I’ve strayed away from that original concept, but it was a great way to give me a feel for my characters at the start of writing process. But I find I am still using subtle Wonderland analogies throughout my narrative.
And – after all – I am taking a leaf out of Neil Gaiman’s playbook. Who am I to argue with the Rock God of Fantasy Fiction?