If you’ve ever taken an English class, you have probably talked a lot about “theme.” Some teachers call it a one-word topic, like “love” or “individuality”; some call it a phrase or message, like “love conquers all” or “crime doesn’t pay.”
Even simpler and more commercial fiction has theme, although it’s usually more basic. A romance novel’s theme might be “honesty is the best policy” or “how to forgive.” A mystery’s theme could be “living in the present moment” or “justice vs. revenge.”
The question for a writer is: Should I be thinking about theme while planning/writing? How much theme is too much? And how do I purposefully create themes?
The danger of “too much” theme is that the story will be preachy and obnoxious—the innocent child who spouts the novel’s message of love or the evil corporate leader who rants in familiar political rhetoric… In some projects and depending on execution, there’s nothing wrong with these tactics; but for general commercial fiction or for more entertainment-based fiction, being too obvious about the themes can backfire.
Some authors don’t know their theme until they’ve written it, and maybe not even then if they choose not to think about it. And there’s nothing wrong with not having a theme, even though most stories will have a theme whether you plan it or not.
That’s why I choose to think about theme early on, generally in plotting. Who your villain is, and what they’re doing and why, can often inadvertently carry the theme—so I prefer to choose that deliberately. If your villain is a dark lord seeking to kill all muggleborns, then you’ve stumbled onto themes of prejudice and intolerance. If they’re an out-of-control government monitoring every moment of the citizens’ lives and taking their freedoms, then your themes are political, and based on anti-government ideologies. In a more character-based story, a villain may be hypocritical, or power-hungry (on a small scale, like a local election), or racist, or unwilling to believe, etc.
The villain’s identity, their main motivation, and their actions or plan, compose an essential part of the theme—you’re generally saying what they are/do is bad. Then your hero is out to stop, defeat, or overcome them, so what they want/are/do is good. Even if you don’t plan it, there’s a core of theme right there; so for me, I think about it. A lot of times, thinking about what I want the villain to represent helps develop their plan and the overall plot—and to avoid preachiness, I try to complicate things. How is the “good” side not all good, and the “bad” side not all bad? How is the issue at stake more complex and multifaceted?
If a clear villain is not in the mix, or in addition to one, I also think about theme when it comes to plot—shown most clearly in the climax. Is the final act a sacrifice? That has a thematic element, depending on how you portray it—is it noble, repentant, ineffective, exemplary? Does the final act include the villain changing their minds? Does it include death and destruction, or mercy and forgiveness? Do they lose the game, but make peace with that? How your story ends is another major factor in how its themes are received.
Finally, the other major source of theme is the hero’s character arc. Most characters (with the exception of static series characters, although they may have smaller and more immediate changes/revelations) change over the course of a story. How they change can be a source of theme—do they become more forgiving? More open to love? Do they embrace their individuality? Do they learn to go against the crowd? Do they learn to stand up for what they believe? Do they learn how to accept failure? Do they learn that their crimes have come back to haunt them?
What the character learns (or doesn’t learn, in the case of a negative character arc) could be a key message to the reader—“this is what you should learn.”
The danger with thinking about theme at such an early stage is that the story may come off a bit cheesy, preachy, or even predictable. I generally air on the side of such cheesiness right now, but I have a feeling I will grow out of that as I develop as a writer. For now, I embrace my cheesy themes because I enjoy the feeling of depth it adds to stories (and how it helps me come up with plots). But it might not be right for you, and in that case, just write on.