An Un-theme-ly Situation

On the Fan Fiction section of the Black Library forums I recently posted in a topic discussing how Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 fiction might be ‘grim and dark’. Looking at the responses, I felt the call to discuss the subject of theme in fiction.


I did a cursory search of various websites giving writing advice, but I soon found that theme was often overlooked or misrepresented. A theme for fiction is not necessarily a particular thing or event, but is an over-riding (or underlying) context for the piece. A theme can be broad or specific, although the more specific a theme becomes the more likely it is to be plot rather than actual theme.


Theme is often confused with genre, because certain genres depend heavily upon a dominant theme. For example, horror fiction obviously deals with fear, but the theme of fear can easily appear in any form of fiction, including thrillers, war stories, romance. In fact, as one of our most fundamental emotions, fear is pretty much evident everywhere; fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of death, fear of failure.


The same can be said of love, hate, joy. All of these common emotions can be found in all types of fiction. What turns them into a theme is the will of the author to create a story and characters that embody this emotion in more than just a casual sense.


To continue the fear example, a character could be consistently gripped by fear throughout the story without ever once being in physical danger. Perhaps the character is afraid of being embarrassed, a common fear, and so will always seek to avoid situations that have the potential for embarrassment. This could lead them to ever stranger acts and decisions, harmful and providing conflict for the character, all because of this fear. The plot and characters are thus derived from the theme and embody it.


Thematically Thinking


I’ve mentioned emotional themes, but there are many other kinds. Themes can be very deep and philosophical, such as the nature of evil, the meaning of life or the conflict between nature and nurture. They can be political, looking at socialism versus capitalism, the needs of the many versus the rights of the individual. They can be about ambition, betrayal, justice, gender issues or technology.


A short story will tend to have one theme, while a longer work will likely have one or two dominant themes and several lesser themes, either concordant with the main theme or deliberately set against it.


The intent of a theme is to stimulate a deeper response from the reader, whether emotional or intellectual. It engages the reader not only with the characters and action, but the story as a whole.


When preparing your story, it is simple to ask yourself the following question: what is the story about? This should be the story rendered down to its basic essentials. It is an unrequited love story. It is a story about a man being laid low by his own ambition. It is the tale of a man conquering his fear of failure. If you can answer your story in this fashion you have your theme already.


If you find yourself answering with the plot – it’s about a person who does this and that –  the story lacks theme. Or rather, the writer has not yet recognised the theme of the story. I say this because every plot has a theme to it, because the writer is human (or hamster, in the case of Dennis) and so their inspiration for the story will have sprung from some source. This inspirational theme may not be brought forth because the writer concentrates on the surface elements of the narrative rather than the undercurrent of the storytelling.  If you find yourself answering the question in this fashion, then the next thing to do is ask: why? Why does the character do X and not Y? Answer this in thematic terms – because he loves or hates Z, because he is a communist, because he is struggling to find his place in the world, because he is lonely. From this the theme will emerge and as a writer one can then create a more fulfilling story.


Theme or Message?


A theme may not have a single direct mention within the story itself, but if the writer bears it in mind throughout (and has the ability to bring this into the writing) then it should exist in the story, lurking under the surface. Alternatively, a story can wear its theme like a badge, constantly referenced in the action, dialogue and in the thoughts of the characters.


In the latter case, a theme may become a message. This is when the author puts forth an answer or viewpoint through the themes of the story. The narrative espouses a certain belief system to be correct, and is written in such a way that it endeavours to convince the reader this is the case. Having a message is neither better nor worse than a theme; just ensure that it is done consciously. It is all too easy for a writer’s theme to become a message unintentionally, because the writer will have their own thoughts, opinions and experience in real life and this can come through the thoughts, opinions and experiences of the characters. Simply be aware of what you are writing.


Mouse Update: Saw him last night. I’m off to get the humane traps today. 

Published in: on April 7, 2008 at 10:22 am  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. A very interesting read


  2. Well put! Theme really doesn’t get enough attention when people read or write about craft, and it’s something we should keep in mind.


  3. […] I’ve just found an interesting post on Mechanical Hamster about theme (Link), and it’s gotten me thinking about not only thematic elements, but reoccurring symbols, […]


  4. […] Thorpe recently posted a blog on the subject, and it’s something I’ve talked to various people about (Gav included) at length in the past. I […]


  5. […Having a message is neither better nor worse than a theme; just ensure that it is done consciously…]

    Great thoughts. I’ve recently chosen the motto “Be Deliberate” to guide my next year or so, and your words on doing things consciously resonated with me. Whether message or theme, writers need to be aware of what they are choosing to say.


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