When someone asks you what the theme of your story is, it can be a hard question to answer. This doesn’t mean your story doesn't have one, it just isn't overt, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, theme isn’t something you want front and centre.
That is, the reader doesn’t need to know from the outset what themes you’re going to be looking at. And even if by the end they can’t really put their finger on exactly what the overarching theme was, they just have a feeling that they can’t quite put into words, that’s fine. In many ways that sort of response is preferable to being too obvious or predictable.
However, for the writer, it’s important to know how theme is created, how you can shape it and what the mechanics are.
Although we all know what theme means and are able to recognise it in other people’s writing, putting it into our own work isn’t always so straightforward. A lot of the time it’s left to the subconscious to take care of that side of things. Which sometimes works out fine; and sometimes not.
The big themes—love is supreme, man is cruel, war is bad, etc.—are easier to include as a backdrop but can be a little too generic or even hackneyed or trite. There are plenty of great examples where they’ve been done brilliantly, of course, but to such an extent that there is little left to be said that isn’t just repeating what everybody already know (although, if you have a new angle on an old theme, that’s certainly worth pursuing).
Technically, where theme comes from is very specific. It comes from your main character. And to be even more specific, it comes from the things your main character worries about, their doubts and uncertainties.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say the main character is the hero (although not all protagonists are by any means noble) and the antagonist is the villain (equally, not all antagonists are evil). The hero is going to have some goal they need to reach. But the hero isn’t going to just aim carefully and go, go, go.
The hero is going to have issues. He’s going to wonder if he’s doing the right thing, if they’re going to fail, about the consequences and ramifications.
On the other hand, the villain is going to be much more sure of himself. He knows what he wants and he’s going to do whatever he needs to do.
There are reasons for this discrepancy.
The hero’s qualms are going to be the basis of the story’s theme. The aspects of his quest that trouble him are what the readers will respond to, whether they’re aware of it or not.
If the hero is attempting to win the heart of a girl, but he worries he isn’t good enough for her, then that’s the theme. Yes, love is the general backdrop, but this story, at least in this part, is about learning to value yourself.
Or, if the story is about a bank robber planning his last job who swore he would go straight but finds himself back in the game, then as well as the larger themes of crime and temptation, the specifics of why he succumbed, the thing that was important enough to him to force him to go back on his promise, that’s the theme.
But what if there are lots of different things the character is dealing with?
This is one of the problems of letting the subconscious take care of things. The brain will come up with all sorts of struggles for your hero and they may work well together or they may not.
You want the different concerns of your hero to sit well together, to feel like they’re coming from the same person. Too many diverse elements can turn into a big mess. Knowing which part of the story is generating the strands of your theme makes it a lot easier to weave them together smoothly.
The reason you usually want the villain to not have these kinds of doubts is along the same lines. You're adding extra strands that can be distracting, especially if the villains issues are completely different to the hero’s. You can end up with a lot of different elements competing for the reader’s attention and it can end up being confusing.
This isn't always the case. It’s perfectly possible to give the hero and villain complementary themes, or even to give them separate themes that bounce back and forth. A skilful writer can do whatever he or she wants. But it tends to be a lot easier for theme to have impact when it’s more refined and focused.
By making the villain determined to go forward no matter what it forces the hero to make choices and to act. In effect to test their concerns in the world rather than just in their head.
Worried about being good enough for the girl? Well you better decide which side of the fence your on because here comes Smarmy McDastardly to sweep her away with his big wallet and unfeasibly grand promises.
The theme isn’t just a fog that sits around the story, it develops through the actions of the hero. By making the hero unsure you allow them room to change and grow. This is how theme becomes more than just a motto (War is bad!) and turns into an integral part of the narrative.
In addition, there’s another advantage to making the hero uncertain and the villain unwavering, and that’s to create sympathy.
A character who wants to be with the girl of his dreams but worries she’ll reject him is something easy to relate to and empathise with.
A character who wants to be with a girl no matter what and is willing to do whatever it takes whether she agrees or not is kind of creepy.
The more certain a character is the more arrogant he can come across. Devoted lover or stalker? Saviour of the people or fascist taking control? Self-belief or self-delusion? The line between these sorts of characters is a fine one and it comes down to questioning one’s own motives.
If you don’t consider how your actions will make others feel, if you don’t consider the consequences, if you don’t consider the chance of failure, then you are literally being inconsiderate. And inconsiderate people aren’t very appealing.
Again, there are ways round this, and you can probably think of many examples of characters who are very sure of themselves and very appealing. Characters in thrillers who always know what to do and take risks without a second thought are very popular; but they’re also kind of cold and robotic.
They get away with it by being charming, having amazing skills or generally turning out to be right about everything; which isn’t too hard when the writer can arrange for every girl to gratefully fall at his feet and make every villain deserving of a gruesome death. It can be a fun read, but you’ll find the theme of those sorts of books tend to be quite broad and clichéd.
Theme is found in the things your hero considers important enough to worry about. The villain gives him reason to worry about them.
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