NOVELJUTSU EPISODE 07: THEME PART I – WHAT IS THEME?
Spoiler alert for the Dragon Age video game serious (minor spoilers) and for The Last of Us (major spoilers).
Originally, I thought today’s post on theme would be easy to cover in a single video.
Apparently, there’s a lot more to say about theme than I first thought, because there are different camps on whether you should have a theme in your novel, when you should think of theme, and even on what theme is.
Since this turned into a much bigger discussion than I’d anticipated, I’m going to save my tips on how to write theme for next time. For today’s post I’ll instead focus on introducing what theme actually is. So, let’s dive in.
THEME AS A MORAL ARGUMENT
The way most people define theme differs depending on whether we’re discussing fiction or non-fiction. For fiction, most people define theme as the topic of your novel, a topic that usually relates to the human condition, such as “love” or “redemption.”
If this definition works well for you, don’t let me tell you otherwise! However, the definition of theme in non-fiction is different. I’m not sure it should be. Let’s take a look at the structure of an essay to show you what I mean.
Vampires are better than werewolves.
Vampires are awesome. They have cool mind powers and look classy in a Victorian suit. They don’t shed all over the carpet or get fleas like werewolves do. Sometimes vampires live in castles and have neat accents, but werewolves are just snarly, smelly, and in need of a shave.
So, like I said, vampires are better than werewolves, which is a cold, hard fact.
(Unless you're talking Twilight, in which case the reverse is true. Sorrynotsorry.)
The basic structure of an essay is 1) an introduction that states the theme or purpose of the essay, 2) a body that provides evidence in support of the theme and refutes evidence against it, and 3) a conclusion that summarizes the findings of that evidence and reasserts the theme.
Here, in the embodiment of impeccable writing craft, the theme is “vampires are better than werewolves.” In non-fiction, rather than the topic of an essay, theme is an argument the author wishes to make through their writing.
This is similar to how John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story, defines theme in fiction, the only key difference being that theme in fiction should be a moral statement. Truby calls this a “moral argument.”
“Theme,” Truby says, “is the author’s view of how to act in the world… Whenever you present a character using means to reach an end, you are presenting a moral predicament, exploring the question of right action, and making a moral argument about how best to live.”
There are a few of Truby’s views I find too prescriptive, but I find this definition helpful. The reason I think this is better than thinking of theme as the “topic” of your novel is it automatically presents the author with a purpose to their story—it gives them a road map.
Think back to my excellent and ground-breaking miniature essay on vampires. My theme was “vampires are better than werewolves,” and the purpose of my essay was to prove that position. If, however, my theme had simply been “vampires,” my essay could have looked very different.
They have fangs. Except when they don’t.
This one time I dressed up as a vampire for Halloween. At least I think I did. I couldn’t see myself in the mirror for some reason.
Vampires are dead, but also not dead. Kinda like zombies but with better hygiene. Does that mean they smell like citrus shampoo?
Oh, and I should probably mention something about bats.
In conclusion… Uh… Vampires!
See the difference? “Vampires” is too broad to be a useful theme for an essay, and themes such as “love” or “redemption” don’t give your novel any direction either. So, instead of thinking of theme as the topic of your novel, try forming your theme into a moral argument.
THEME IS A MORAL QUESTION YOU ASK THE READER
Because everyone’s minds work a little differently, I wanted to offer you a slightly different method to work theme into your novel, and that is to frame your theme as a question. For the sake of keeping to a, well, theme, I’ll call this method the “moral question.”
Like a moral argument, a moral question provides a framework for the rest of your novel. When you’ve posed a moral question, the plot and character arcs in your novel will represent different answers, and the ending of your novel will establish what you view as the “correct” answer.
For example, if you’re writing a romance novel, one moral question you might ask is “what does true love look like?” I know a lot of people aren’t into love triangles right now (probably because so many of them have been written without much care or thought beyond the drama they provide), but in this case, a love triangle would be an acceptable way to work through this theme. Each of your protagonist’s potential romantic partners would represent one answer to the question of “true love.” Perhaps one accepts the protagonist for who they are while another encourages them to be the best version of themselves they can. As the author, you’ll decide the answer to “what does true love look like?” by having your protagonist choose the “right” partner and achieve their happily ever after.
I don’t have much to touch on here, but I wanted to return to the quote I gave from Truby for a moment, precisely this part: “you are … making a moral argument about how best to live.”
Just to be clear I felt I should point out that tragedies are a thing and it’s possible to have a novel with failed character arcs and disastrous endings. This doesn’t mean theme goes out the window—in fact, I’d say theme is even more important in these stories—but now your theme will be about how best not to live.
In these kinds of stories, you will probably have a character who exemplifies one correct way to live but who is not your protagonist. By your protagonist succumbing to one of their flaws and losing to this other character, you will provide the lesson of your story.
While it’s rare to see this, I think it’s also possible to leave a moral question unanswered. The reason this is rare is because it’s so, so easy to do poorly. That said, when this is done well, it can make for a fascinating story your readers will love to talk about long after they’ve finished the book.
I wouldn’t recommend this approach to new writers, but if you’re going to attempt it, I have a few suggestions you might want to keep in mind.
I. Make sure that all answers to the moral question are valid and fairly presented. One way to do this is to provide each answer with 1) a benefit, 2) a flaw, and 3) a consequence.
This isn’t a perfect example, but one moral question provided in the video game series Dragon Age is “which is more important: freedom or public security?” In the Dragon Age universe, mages in most of the known world are sent to live in places called “Circles” once their magic abilities manifest. In the Circle, mages are taught to use and control their magic, but the Circle isn’t just a place of learning, it’s also a form of detainment centre. Mages aren’t normally allowed to come and go as they please. The Templars who guard them not only keep a careful watch, but they are also trained to hunt and kill any mage who runs away.
To most of us, this sounds terrible. However, there is a reason this system is in place. You see, mages are highly susceptible to being possessed by demons. This can and, the games show, often does result in catastrophic events and the horrible deaths of many innocents. It’s not surprising, then, that many in the Dragon Age world think it best to seclude mages away from the general public.
The game for the most part tries not to tell the player whether the freedom of mages or their separation from society is more important. As a player, you get to decide which side of the argument you fall on, but you will meet characters with their own opinions on the matter, find evidence of both sides’ merits, and also see where both sides cross lines or abuse power.
II. The second suggestion for those who want to have an unanswered moral question is to include secondary themes in your novel that do have an answer.
To use another video game as an example, The Last of Us poses a moral question players of the game have debated the answer to for years: “is it better to save those we love or to sacrifice them for the good of humanity?” Even though the main character, Joel, decides what he thinks the answer to that question is, the game itself … doesn’t.
But the game has other major themes that see a resolution, including the theme “loss is an inevitable part of love.” Over the course of his journey with Ellie, the hardened Joel learns to love her like a daughter. When, at the end of the game, he must choose between saving Ellie’s life or letting her sacrifice herself to save mankind, Joel refuses to lose Ellie. He refuses to accept that loss is a part of love, and in a sense, he loses Ellie anyway. Not her life, but her trust.
This kind of moral grey area is popular now in both characters and fictional worlds, but if you aren’t really careful with approaching unanswered themes, you’re likely to leave your readers feeling your novel doesn’t have a proper conclusion. Having secondary themes that are resolved is one way to avoid your readers getting frustrated with you.
So, that’s it for today’s post. I still have more post about theme, so I’ll save the writing challenge and Project: Noveljutsu update for another episode. As always, if you liked this, feel free to follow me on YouTube, Twitter, or Instagram. You can find links to all my social media on this website. See you next time!