Still struggling with the idea of ‘theme’?
It’s not the way most authors write — hardly anyone starts off with a rational concept and decides to dress it up with fictional elements like characters and a plot in order to communicate it to readers. But every successful piece of fiction there is achieves that success by shaping itself to some extent around a uniting idea or set of ideas.
What kinds of ideas? You’ll be pleased to know that no one expects any writer to come up with original ideas. They might say that they do - but in fact, originality is not what readers primarily seek. That’s largely because there isn’t any. Yes, you can have a unique take on an already existing idea — you should strive for that — but a totally unheard of, new concept never before touched upon in the field of literature? Unlikely. We’re all human beings and human beings have sets of concerns and interests and passions and have had pretty much the same concerns, interests and passions since time or at least since storytelling began. You’re probably not going to stumble upon a new one anytime soon, just an old one in new clothes.
So what are the ideas we commonly find holding stories together? There are countless themes found in books, but there are a few that we can see in many books and some that we see in the most successful books. Tap into those few Big Themes and you increase your chances of popular among editors and readers alike because they are things other human beings can relate to.
This is a big one because it extends well beyond the boundaries of ‘literary’ fiction and spills over into genres like thrillers, adventures stories and science fiction. Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Jack London’s White Fang or even a James Bond tale: it’s immediately captivating to follow characters who must overcome countless odds just to live another day. Life versus Death. Does that qualify as ‘theme’ in the sense we’ve been talking about? Remember, we’re defining ‘theme’ as a central topic discussed in a literary work. ‘Survival’ is a pretty basic and limited theme but it is a central topic which holds a lot of stories together. Characters in stories built around ‘survival’ lead us through experiences which hold together as fiction as long as ‘survival’ is paramount, as long as the life and death position of the protagonist is maintained. Theme is what glues stories together and gives them shape. If a character struggling to stay alive in the desert suddenly diverges into wondering about something other than whether he or she will survive another day, the story loses steam and form.
Peace and War
This takes the basic survival idea of an individual trying to live despite obstacles and expands it across society. The turmoil of conflict, longing for days of peace, reminiscing about life before the war, can be a powerful theme. Think of Gone With the Wind, All Quiet on the Western Front, and of course Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in which the grand scale of human history is brought to life through a set of characters being caught up in war. Tolstoy is a good example because it was clearly his intention to examine analytically 'war' and 'peace' as aspects of the human condition, and large parts of his book are in fact essays in which ideas are taken apart rationally and compared to real events. This is ‘theme’ as a discussion of abstract concepts, not as fiction — but in the other chapters Tolstoy then frames the whole thing through fiction, using fiction’s devices of plot, character, image, dialogue and so on, to ‘prove his point’ about the central topic. He does it so well that we 'forget' or are prepared to forgive that the whole book is really a giant piece of propaganda for his ideas.
From Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series through to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice or Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights plus the whole genre of Romance novels, Love is one of the most common themes in stories. In lesser fiction, the treatment of this theme degenerates into a set of clichéd tropes, but in the hands of a greater author, it can create a masterpiece. Usually focusing on a female protagonist and her encounter with someone destined to be her partner, this theme connects up all the parts of the work guiding our expectations and attention throughout, as all themes should do.
Good and Evil
Another popular theme which can easily become two-dimensional and clichéd is the battle between darkness and light, good and evil. Even in books in which the central theme is something else, this fundamental dichotomy which lies at the heart of the human condition is almost bound to come up in some form. Obvious examples spring to mind, from the tales of King Arthur to Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings. It’s almost a ‘default theme’ — if you can’t think of another unifying concept, have a good guy and a bad guy and the binary opposition will serve as an almost mechanical unifier. If you want to add depth and interest, make the binary opposites not quite so opposite: have evil lie in the heart of the protagonist as well as good, and good lurk in the heart of the villain. This is partly why Star Wars is so popular when many other tales of that type are forgotten. The theme then becomes not so much ‘Good versus Evil’ as ‘What is the nature of good and evil?’, which in terms of attracting readers is far more magnetic.
There are many other popular themes, from Coming of Age to Judgement to Deception to Suffering and so on. Anything which is of interest to human beings can be turned into a theme for fiction. But fiction now begins to be seen in its true light: fiction is a mode of communication of ideas unlike any other. Music communicates mood; essays communicate concepts — only fiction, as far as I can see, can do both at the same time.