Across the internet, in niches of the writing community, the topic of theme is pretty widely discussed. Spawning from years of reading-class conversations over literary icons, thematic statements can feel simultaneously obvious and vague, practical and mystical, tacked-on and over-thought.
What even is a theme?
“Theme, of course, is a statement, direct or implied, about the author’s ideas of the human condition.”
Ah… of course. That makes sense. Thank you Google.
I have heard theme renamed many things that feel more relatable: the ‘big idea,’ the ‘universal truth,’ the ‘commentary on humanity.’ The Lesson. The Moral. The Take-Away. But even those words can feel pretentious and unhelpful.
To take an example right out of Mrs. Peirce’s AP Lit class, let’s look briefly at the Great Gatsby. An incredibly basic summary of the story might look like this: Jay Gatsby gains wealth in an effort to win the adulterous affection of a past-lover, Daisy Buchanan, eventually leading to his death. From this statement alone, I could argue that two large thematic ideas are wealth and love, because they are two of the biggest factors in the writing, and, therefore, in the summary. Gatsby gains wealth in order to pursue his lost love. Many of his biggest goals revolve around gaining those two things. Love and Wealth. Wealth and Love. Seems simple enough. Yet, if you were to Google themes of the book, you would get lengthy lists that varied with each source. “The American Dream,” “justice,” “power,” “greed,” “ambition,” and on and on and on.
And suddenly we’re overwhelmed again. How is this supposed to help us as writers? What can we learn? I think there is one great lesson: there is no one right answer. Don’t overdo it; I believe every story has a theme, whether intentional or not. Let your story happen, and these elusive themes will happen the same.
Still concerned? Hoping to be more intentional? Let me walk you through my process:
In my writing, I look for one theme. No more, no less. And for me, that theme starts with characters.
In my current manuscript, Tales of Drynic, my main character’s name is Abryn. Abryn is a mechanic who chooses to work in a poor town, even though she doesn’t have to. She stays because she has abilities that the townspeople need, and she needs to feel needed. That’s her goal, her motivation, and her philosophy. Be useful or be forgotten. Because her self-worth is tied to her usefulness to other people, she is constantly learning new skills. Not only can she fix machines, but she can cook, she can knit, she can play guitar, she can be what you need her to be. Because she is a fast learner, she develops a false-pride and a sense of hollow self-importance. Because she clings to this false-pride, she becomes upset when she doesn’t pick something up or have an aptitude for any one thing. She is uneasy around blood, and that is a large point of shame, as she feels useless in medical situations. She keeps herself in a cycle of learning, hoping to be the best, and refusing to have faith in others.
When the story begins, you meet Abryn as a workaholic who bears the weight of her town’s transit-repair team — a job she sees as vital to the survival of the townspeople. She is introduced to royalty who tempt her with an offer to help them save surrounding cities from collapsing on themselves. She is put in a position of power that feeds the belief that she is earning worth because of her help and involvement. Time and time again, she is presented with options that give her a sense of control; she is given the opportunity to take matters into her own hands on a power-high that can cause ripples across her small island-nation.
If you consider these character traits, ideals, fears, beliefs, and flaws — things you likely already have baked into your own character — you can start to see them weave a coherent through-line that leads to an idea about humanity. Theme is often directly linked to character and character growth; it’s easier to learn from other people, even if they’re fictional.
To me, Abryn’s story says that self-worth cannot be earned. To you, it may mean that perfection is unattainable. Another might see that one person can’t do everything. Another learns that it’s important to love yourself. All of these answers are just as valid as the last. The thing is, I — as the writer — am only focusing on the one. I cannot stop the reader from seeing different truths, but this truth is the one I want to tell myself. That is how I find my themes — by looking at my life and asking what I need to teach myself.
So maybe that is a place to start. It can be overwhelming to look at the world and try to make a statement that applies to everyone. It’s intimidating to find a way to say “love is the most important thing of all,” or “world-peace is the best option” without sounding pretentious. Maybe the most important place to look is at your flaws, pains, and tragedies. Funny thing about humans, we often need to learn the same stupid things.
That’s all I have for this week. I hope it gave you a direction to look in.