Writing is the process of taking ideas and putting them down on paper. All ideas have consequences, both the immediate and the more abstract, and exploring those consequences is part of what writing exists for. Most of the immediate consequences of ideas are explored in the plot, the series of events that the protagonist and his or her immediate sphere of influence are involved in. And, of course, the characters themselves Themes, on the other hand, are a little bit different.
Let’s take a fairly well known work of fiction and examine the themes in it, shall we?
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a classic work of literature. It goes beyond stagecraft – people read the play just to get at the rich literary depth therein. Among other things, we still occasionally hear of the dangers of becoming a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hopefully you’re familiar with the story already, if not, or if you’re rusty, the Wikipedia page can bring you up to speed.
There are basically three themes in Hamlet:
Death. (Newsflash – everyone dies at end of Shakespearean tragedy!) The play begins in the aftermath of a murderer and doesn’t end until almost every last character we’ve seen on stage for the past few hours has suffered of poison, blade or both!
Revenge. The death of Hamlet’s father is what sets things in motion and his quest for revenge is the driving force behind the plot.
Insanity. Not only does Hamlet feign insanity and his lady love actually go insane, the presence of a ghost that many people see, yet others do not, suggests that more might actually be insane than is readily apparent. Of course, Hamlet’s thirst for vengeance looks a lot like insanity as well, complete with grizzly consequences in the death of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And some might say that the drive to murder that we see in Claudius and Gertrude is a kind of insanity as well.
Now you might say that these themes are a part of the plot – and you’re right. But where plot and characters exist in a kind of dialog, with characters able to adapt to the plot or the plot following characters as they run off the beaten path, themes constrain them both.
In Hamlet there are many opportunities for characters to avoid death. Something as simple as not believing the words of a ghost that could be a figment of the imagination or a demon in disguise would have kept Hamlet from his path of revenge. Instead, the themes of the story keep the characters and plot from wandering off track.
I’ve said before and I’ll say again, the primary purpose of fiction is to provoke a reaction from the reader. Every aspect must be carefully tailored with an end in mind, every plot point drive towards the eventual end of the story. Now the audience might not walk away with your desired reaction in mind but that’s just the nature of art. The point is to allow the drive to structure your art, that it might be as clear and as meaningful as possible. Even if the audience sees things differently than you, the strength of your purpose will come through in some form.
Themes are what give your story that strength. Just as the skeleton gives your body a great part of its strength, anchoring your muscles, so theme is a vital part of what anchors plot and character and keeps them from fighting one another. Hamlet’s themes are what keep the character Hamlet’s rage strong yet let him give his despairing “to be, or not to be” soliloquy. They allow for glimpses of humor, but only from gravediggers plying their trade. Ultimately, they allow us to feel the full weight of the decision to murder and to avenge.
Your themes are an essential part of your story. If you are going to write, you must start with a theme. Let it shape your plot, your characters and drive you to your ultimate ends. Don’t throw out things that don’t fit with your theme – that’s what Graveyarding is for – but keep your eye firmly on the goal. It will make your writing that much stronger.