Arriving at Theme by Way of Milieu

Introduced in the book Character & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient argues that all stories must contain four key elements: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. Furthermore, he asserts that the balance of these elements will inform the type of story being told and the work’s marketable audience, a concept I likened to a “storyteller’s mixing board” in In Brief’s very first sequence. However, most of the discourse surrounding MICE treats the four elements as separate entities, a trend that I believe does a disservice to the discussion.

I prefer to look at how each MICE element informs the other three. As a specific example, though a great deal has been written on the use of detailed milieu description to establish or enhance mood or tone, I feel that the topic of milieu as an expression of theme has been less thoroughly explored. Theme is more often attributed to character opinion, action, and conflict. However, characters should be strongly informed by milieu, and therefore themes should be as well.

For one, consider how a character’s world view and personality is often tied into the circumstances of their birth and life. People often act and react based on their upbringing, reusing the strategies and actions that have proven successful in the past. Consider the Gentlemen Bastards from Scott Lynch’s series bearing the same name. The fact that their milieu is dark and gritty, that they grew up as members of a criminal underworld, and that their mentor Chains raised and trained them to value and rely on one another largely defined their character and actions. From that basis, Lynch raises questions of the necessity of cleverness, deceit, and violence in survival, as well as exploring the true meaning of loyalty and family. Without the backdrop of Camorr, those themes may not have played as well as they did.

Furthermore, if you consider in-world popular opinion and socio-political discourse to be an intrinsic part of milieu, any character versus government or character versus society conflict is really protagonist versus milieu. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Miles spends much of the series confronting and subverting Barrayaran innate hatred and distrust of mutation. This leads to his character’s thematic struggle for recognition and status in a society that determines personal value and personhood based on physical appearance and military value.

As writers, we need to consider not only what tone and mood our settings portray, but also how they will shape and accentuate the themes of our stories. For one, milieu will directly shape character, and therefore indirectly define theme through the actions and reactions of protagonist and antagonist alike. Additionally, the prejudice, power structures, and opinions of the ensemble will often serve as an antagonistic force opposing the protagonist’s aims. Without taking the time to consider how the milieu will accentuate theme, character, and plot during the world building process, we risk each element falling flat and spoiling the whole.


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