Many novelists want to leave the reader with a final thought or message as well as to entertain them with the story. Yet a theme cannot be forced into a novel. Instead it is moral, belief or value that seeps into the story on its own and emerges from the story to the reader.
Element of Theme
A good theme happens because it is intrinsic to the story. It’s a natural element that grows within it and often has to do with the convictions of one of the story’s main characters. It influences and/or creates conflicts within the novel so that it produces growth or failure of the character.
Themes are not always present at first, and they are not always what the character embraces. Look for things he avoids or ways in which he restrains himself. These are as important. As you develop your character’s needs, wants, goals, and struggles, keep track of what influences the character and how it affects him. As you review these factors, take note of the bigger picture. What do these influences affect in terms of life values, beliefs or morals. Does it make comments about forgiveness, acceptance, longing, compassion, wealth, honesty, awareness, hope, or love.
A Theme’s Purpose
Various story elements remain in a reader’s mind. It can be a character, a setting, a plot, or a life lesson or message that lingers. Everyone has values, morals and beliefs that they struggle with or deal with in their lives. These can cause them joy or grief depending on how their life grows or sinks. When a person fails something they value or believe in, they suffer. If they overstep their moral bounds, they can falter and doubt, fear retribution and sink into an abyss. Reading a story where a character overcomes, rebounds, and moves forward gives readers hope. If they fail, it can lift a reader who has survived a lapse in a belief or moral situation. They can feel forgiven or uplifted that they made it through the dark water. Themes teach, stimulate and connect with readers. This is their purpose.
Give Characters Strong Values and Beliefs
Looking at your own life, note what is important to you. Family? Job? Health? Generousness? Communication? Faith? What is it that molds your life and your actions? Give your characters these kids of strong, unshakeable truths. Use the plot to force these characters to protect these values, show these beliefs and morals in the life of your characters, demonstrate their problems when these truths are attacked or are weakened and the character fails. Through these convictions, the characters provide a focus, a message, a lesson that becomes a theme in the story.
Human kind is imperfect. Everyone has flaws and weaknesses that they succumb to or learn to overcome and grow. Readers want to see these flaws and weaknesses in characters, and they learn from the ups and downs of men and woman in the novel. When a novelist steps into the story and breaks the natural flow of the story’s reality to make a point, to teach, to show the problem in a way that doesn’t fit the story line, then readers withdraw. A theme cannot be blatant or forced. As I said earlier, it must come from a naturalness within the character and the situations in the story. Help the reader see that all mankind is flawed and yet can still succeed and win over their failures. Show it through character action, dialogue and introspection and not through a harangue from the author to jam the theme down the reader’s throat.
Use setting to enhance theme
Sometimes a setting can bring the theme to life. Certainly the absurd opulence of the home in The Great Gatsby emphasizes waste and corruption of values. A barren plain can be a symbol of a life that is empty and unproductive. An island setting can emphasis the aloneness of life and the dependence people have on each other or the lack of it. A cozy village can stress the value of family or the simple life that connects people to others. A stormy sea or a winter setting can remind us of the power of nature and the finiteness of human life.
Use analogies or symbols
If you saw the movie The Great Gatsby, you cannot forget the billboard sign of the eyes looking down on the world of corruption and loss of morals. It’s almost as if God is sitting in judgement over the mass of humanity. Novels can also have motifs and symbols such as this to be a subtle emphasis of a novel’s theme. Certainly the ring in the Lord of the Rings provides an ever present symbol of evil in the world and the need to win over it, to let good remain and evil fail.
But the sign or symbol must be subtle and a meaningful part of the story. It must make sense. It might be a child’s rocking horse in a home where their are no children, reminding the reader that we were all children, or that somewhere in all of us a child still lives, or the loss of a child never leaves us. It depends on other elements of the novel to make the sign have meaning. Once the reader latches on to it—and on his own cognition and not being told—it serves the purpose of keeping the theme ever present in the story. The important thing to remember is that the sign must be a natural part of the story.
Whether you use symbols or setting, whether you allow the characters or plot to bring the theme to life, keep it real and natural, avoid author intrusion and let the theme grow on the reader without being forced. The lesson, message or thought can make an impact that will linger in readers’ minds longer than many other elements of your novel.