For most beginning writers, theme does not seem to be a particularly important part of the writing process. Some probably believe it just occurs organically. While that can and does happen, it is usually a rare occurrence. Though every storyteller has experienced it, this is not a reliable method to rely on for adding a theme to one’s fiction. As with all facets of the craft, theme is something that requires conscious effort more often than not.
So how does one select a theme for his novel? And what is a theme? Why is it necessary?
To answer the first question, let us turn to the handy-dandy Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which defines theme as: “1a: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation; b: a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern.” Any item written with an aim to further discourse, education, or art has a theme. For fiction, theme gives the incidents within a novel a distinct purpose meant to illumine the life of the reader in some way. What this theme is depends entirely upon the writer and the topic he wishes to explore.
Of course, this brings us back to the question of how one finds a theme for their work. In English courses from Kindergarten to Grade 12, the subject is usually assigned. The teacher chooses a broad topic and lets his/her students write about some smaller subject related to it. As long as he or she has enough examples to back up his or her thesis and uses proper grammar to do it, the student’s chosen theme will likely earn a passing grade.
In the world of fiction, theme behaves somewhat differently. For the most part, it is an item that is entirely at the writer’s discretion; an author can choose his own topic to address within a novel or short story. Rather than search for examples to support this thesis, in fiction the writer uses motifs to hearken back to the theme in ways that help the reader/viewer recall the point of his story.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines motif as: “1: a usually recurring…dominant idea or central theme.” Good stories have several themes and motifs, some of which are not (necessarily) added by any conscious choice the author made. Themes are quite broad, so a writer’s full focus on one aspect of a particular theme tends to leave a multitude of features “floating” around the story. Since he will not be able to actively consider these during the writing and editing processes, one may consider such themes subconscious additions to the work. These are the items which readers, critics, and fans often spend hours discussing with one another and the world at large.
This is a luxury the writer can indulge in – at a later time. During the writing process his main concern should be how his theme and motifs interweave with the journey of his protagonists and antagonists. Both items affect these parts of the tale and vice versa in a synchronized ballet. When done well this dance leads the reader/viewer into the story and, eventually, to the author’s main theme.
Of course, one has to wonder what a motif/theme looks like. A good example of a motif which many will recognize is oft-stated in current fiction: “That’s what families do!” Many of us have encountered a story wherein the primary, secondary, or even tertiary protagonists say this to one of their friends. This motif is typically used to support the theme that: “Family is the people you choose, not the ones you grew up with.”
As it is applied by writers today, this theme has several flaws, the greatest of which is the portrayal of the “nuclear” family as an inherently defective micro-society. This is manifestly untrue, as there are many people who are quite happy with the families they were born into and who will fight to protect them when they are threatened. While it is possible for friends and mentors to serve as a surrogate family for those whose kin cannot or will not act in that capacity, these “chosen” families also rely on the “nuclear” family for strength. So this theme is quite helpful and even beautiful when it is utilized properly. But using it at the expense of biological families, as is common these days, is an unfortunate shortcoming of modern fiction.
This motif may not seem immediately germane to the topic at hand, but it is actually quite relevant. When authors misrepresent a particular theme or motif, it will cost both them and their chosen profession as time goes on. As stated above, there is nothing inherently wrong with the theme that “family is what you make of it.” The issue lies with its presentation by many authors today, who employ the theme in a manner that is detrimental to both the craft of storytelling and to the audience.
A look at the X-Men film Dark Phoenix illustrates this point. Based on the popular Phoenix* and Dark Phoenix Sagas* from the comics, the film takes many liberties with the established story. One of these is the death of Jean Grey’s mother and her father’s subsequent abandonment of her. This is why Raven Darkholme/Mystique attempts to calm an empowered Jean Grey by telling her that the X-Men will stand by her “because that’s what families do!”
The problem with this is two-fold. First, in the original story arc which Dark Phoenix is based upon, Jean’s mother is still alive. More to the point, both she and her husband are a major part of Jean’s life. Given Marvel’s penchant for creating alternate universes with varying histories for its characters, this alteration for the film may not seem like a big deal to most. It is, however, a grievous error because it strips not only Jean but the X-Men as a whole of one of their greatest anchors. That attachment is the knowledge that not every biological family is dysfunctional and/or abusive. In point of fact there are many, many natural families with loving, caring mothers and fathers who put their children ahead of themselves. By removing that tie from even a teenage Jean, the writers necessarily deprive one of the most important X-Men of her place as the moral compass of the team.
Traditionally, the X-Men have always accepted teenagers or children from both stable and broken homes into their ranks, something which requires them to act as a surrogate family for younger members with abusive backgrounds. Coming from happy, “nuclear” families, several of the X-Men know what “normal” relationships are like since they actually grew up with them. By drawing on this natural, healthy experience they are able to give their damaged members the benefits of this understanding. In this way they are able to “heal what has been hurt,” to quote Disney’s Tangled*, shepherding their traumatized charges into functional adulthood where they will – hopefully – pass the same lessons on to new generations of their own accord.
This leads to the second error the writers of Dark Phoenix made with Jean Grey. Usually, she is portrayed as a mother figure in the X-Men’s hierarchy or, if she is a teenager, she is presented as an older sister. This is a function she can fulfill because she was raised by a loving mother and father. Even accepting the premise that Professor Xavier serves as a second father to her, the fact remains that he can only satisfy this role for Jean because she already has a reference for his behavior in her biological father. The fact that her father is a friend of Xavier adds to her respect for him.
By taking her parents from her in the beginning of the film, the writers uprooted Jean’s character, making her anchor-less and thus unable to ground her fellow X-Men as only an older sister figure could. This gave her no reason to develop a daughterly attachment to either the Professor or Mystique, rendering the latter’s claim that they are a family more than a little hollow. Combined with her growing psychic abilities and confusion, her unprovoked attack and murder of Mystique comes as no surprise to the audience. It therefore cannot deliver the impact the filmmakers wished to achieve.
This is what happens to a theme when the writer(s) handling it either have only a surface understanding of the subject or an unwillingness to study it in-depth. An author who does not have a good grasp of his theme for either reason will not be able to do it true justice. If the writer is putting every ounce of effort into telling his story properly, his lack of experience or knowledge is largely forgivable. But if he falls short of explicating his theme because he absolutely refuses to recognize how it works in reality, he is actively spurning his audience and his craft to suit his own ends. Readers and/or viewers will shun his work for this reason, since it insults them by claiming that they must disbelieve their “lying eyes” for his vision, despite the fact that he has no more control over the truth and the Truth than they do.
Of course, this makes one wonder how such a theme ought to be handled. Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia* presents a very good illustration of this theme in the story of Eri. A young girl born with the ability to “rewind” any living being to a previous or “younger” state, she has no control over this power and is unable to deactivate it at will. When her superpower or “Quirk” first activated, she accidentally killed her father by rewinding or reversing his body to the state it was before he existed.
Horrified and frightened, Eri’s mother abandoned her, leaving her in the care of her grandfather. This man, the head of one of the last remaining yakuza clans in Japan, turned his granddaughter over to his lieutenant in the hopes he would be able to figure out what her Quirk was and how it could be controlled. Instead, this deputy experimented with Eri’s power, using his own ability to disassemble and reassemble whatever he touched to kill and restore her repeatedly in order to prevent her power from going out of control. He did this for two years before the heroes finally discovered her plight and rescued her.
It goes without saying that Eri has undergone a great deal of trauma. One of the main points of the story, in fact, is that she no longer remembers how to smile. Having been abandoned at the age of four and used as a lab rat for two years, this is not surprising. Nor is it a shock when the staff of the most prestigious superhero school in Japan practically adopts her in order to help her gain control of her terrifying power the right way.
Clearly, there are several parallels between Eri’s situation and Jean’s in Dark Phoenix. Both have undergone severe trauma since their powers manifested and both are in need of a surrogate family to help them heal. In each case, the best way to accomplish this end is for the girls to stay at a school designed specifically to teach teenagers how to become superheroes who will protect ordinary people from harm.
But where Jean’s position in Dark Phoenix violates her previous station in the X-Men universe, rendering the “that’s what families do” motif and theme ill-fitting, Eri serves as a much better vessel for the topic. An enormous reason why Eri does this so well is due to the fact that many of the students and several of the teachers at U.A. High come from strong, happy “nuclear” families of their own. They have – or had, in the staff’s case, perhaps – parents and siblings who put themselves last out of love for their children. Drawing instinctively on these natural experiences, the heroes-in-training and their instructors set out to do their best to be the family Eri needs to heal and become whole.
Was this theme consciously chosen by Mr. Horikoshi? I do not know. And for the purposes of this discussion, it is irrelevant. What is pertinent to the point is that this Japanese author presented the “that’s what families do” theme and motif properly – a fact made blatantly clear by the enthusiastic reception of Eri and her story arc in the My Hero Academia universe.
Of course, this applies not only to the “that’s what families do” motif and theme, but to all themes and motifs in stories across every genre. Whether one is writing about a soldier who has lost his faith, as Mal Reynolds has in Joss Whedon’s Firefly*, or about a man who has become obsessed to the point of madness (Vertigo*), a writer has to explore his theme thoroughly in order to properly present it to audiences. If he does not study it or work to the best of his ability to impart it to readers/viewers justly, then readers and viewers will have no reason to give him the time of day, let alone their hard-earned time and money.
Studying themes for the purpose of writing a story can be a difficult process even when it is assigned by an editor. The open calls for Planetary Anthology: Luna* and Uranus* required that submitted stories either take place on these respective celestial bodies, feature them or the gods they are named for in some way, or deal with abstract concepts such as madness and rebirth. It was up to the writers to decide how to apply these themes.
The way this writer “found” her stories in these collections was by asking questions: What madness might affect people living on the Moon? How could she apply the theme of rebirth to a story? More to the point, how could this author tie these themes to the Moon and the planet Uranus? (It never occurred to me to place either story on Earth. The main point of sci-fi, to me, has always been to get off Earth. If I was going to do a story relating to these heavenly spheres, then those tales would be set there, not on Terra.)
From the above paragraph, it should be relatively easy to see how a writer discovers the theme for his story. The primary way an author chooses and investigates his theme – assigned or not – is by asking questions. What would turn the heroic Browncoat Mal Reynolds into the jaded captain of Serenity? What would make Scottie overcome his acrophobia? How would a girl like Eri, who has known nothing of kindness or love in her short life, react when she received real affection and compassion?
Searching for the answers to these questions helps a writer discover his characters, construct his story, and build his world(s). In the case of a series (Firefly, My Hero Academia) these questions are ongoing, growing and deepening as the universe expands to match the real one. For standalone pieces (Vertigo), the questions are answered by the finale. In each case, however, they are resolved in a believable manner.
While these answers may not be the ones sought by the author (or the audience), that is not important as long as they are real answers based in human experience right here on Earth. If these responses defy the truth and the Truth, as intuitively understood by the audience, then they have the right to refuse to accept the author’s story. Likewise, the writer is correct to reject any answers that do not align with the truth and the Truth. In fact, his livelihood and his craft depend upon his responsible action in this area.
How do you find the theme and motifs for your stories, future writers? Ask questions – about God, about men, about the world around us, and the good and bad that men do. Never stop searching for the truth. Big and small, inconsequential or earth-shattering, if you pursue the truth in all things you will persevere. It cannot hurt you; it can only help you – as a person and a storyteller.
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