What’s the Theme?

Literary critics often talk about the theme of a work of fiction. When I get an idea for a novel and start writing, I don’t do so with any particular theme in mind. I just want to tell a story. I come up with some characters, know that I’ll add others as the story progresses, choose my protagonist and what point of view I’ll use for the story. I write a couple of chapters, stop, take a close look at where the story is going, and work on developing the main characters–their back stories, their problems, their goals, motivations, family life, friends, enemies, personal habits, likes and dislikes, all that sort of thing that goes into producing well-rounded characters. When I feel I have enough information, I go back to writing. I still haven’t given thought to a theme.

So do I ever come up with a theme, and if so, when?

Not while I’m writing the first draft. Sometimes not until I’ve written a second and possibly a third draft. It isn’t until the novel is pretty much in its final form that I can step back, look at it as objectively as possible (as objectively as an author can look at her own work), and discover the theme. I don’t ever plan a story around a theme. For me the theme has to arise naturally from the plot and characters.

In my new science fiction novel, Shadow of a Demon, the theme is “dealing with inner demons,” using demons in the metaphorical sense, of course.  This is how I described it in the submission package which got the novel accepted by Double-Dragon Publishing: “Inner demons haunt them all: China Terrano must face and overcome her incestuous love
for her half-brother, Paolo. Paolo Terrano has to accept the rejection of his foster mother  and the blame she puts on him for the tragedies her family has suffered.  K.T. (Koyne Tamille) Malloran must resolve the conflict between her religious calling as a novice in the Daughters of Mercy, her growing love for Paolo, and her feeling of responsibility for India Terrano’s fate at the hands of the Interplanetary Patrol. But it is India who must cope with the worst inner demon, for her demon is all too real.” I go on to explain that the “demon” is actually a symbiont, an alien being accidentally brought by her father from another planet and transferred to her at her father’s death.

The point is that just as these characters all have inner “demons” that haunt them, so do most of us, and, like India, we must learn either to cope with them and draw strength from them or to exorcise them. This is a lesson that a reader can take away from the book, but the book is not didactic. I didn’t set out writing it to teach a lesson. It is meant to tell a story that entertains, and I hope it will do that whether or not the reader “gets” the theme. Because, ultimately, that’s how the book will be judged–by whether or not it tells a good story. The theme lends depth to the story, but it doesn’t determine its success or failure.


About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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