Themes in writing is one of the hardest things to convey well. And that, I believe, is due to one reason: themes tend to come off as preachy.
One day we decide we’re going to write about loyalty versus love or slavery versus freedom or some other complex metaphor of sorts, and we lay it down on the page, and suddenly the characters aren’t the characters anymore. They’re vessels for what we want to say as writers about the theme itself.
First of all, no.
Second of all, no.
When you’re writing a character, they should be themselves—even if it means you don’t get to say your pretty piece about the theme.
That’s not what writing themes is about. If you find yourself in this place, where there’s more of you spitting out what you think through your characters, than of your characters exploring the theme and finding what they believe—there’s too much writer on the page and you need to step back.
As a teacher, I always tell my young writers that I don’t want to know what side of the fence they’re on.
The best pieces of writing that I’ve read in my life are the pieces where the characters
legitimately struggled with the themes offered up. Where the themes themselves were never outright named, only struggled with inside and outside the character. Where I had no idea whatsoever what the author thought about the themes of the story, but instead watched the characters fight to form their own understandings of the issues and deal with the consequences of that.
The best writers, in my opinion, are the ones who can convincingly write a character whose theme or argument is one that they personally do not agree with.
While that’s not something I actively seek out practicing in my own writing, it’s something that I greatly admire from other writers and it’s something that all of my favorite books accomplish.
When I am writing, I generally have much of the characters’ internal and external plot-lines and journeys worked out before I have any understanding of the themes that they are fighting for.
I also know that one of the hardest things I ever wrote in a book was in a project entitled
Remorse and Arsenic. This story was about the struggle of people left behind after a dear friend commits suicide.
The hardest thing I ever wrote was writing from the point of view of a person who believed that suicide was a mortal sin and damned a person’s soul to hell. Personally, that’s an issue I don’t care to ponder. I’d rather walk the grey line of “their salvation
was between them and Jesus.” But there are quite a few people who do legitimately believe that suicide is one of the worst sins that a person can commit.
For me, writing from that point of view, was soul crushing. As an author, as a person, I didn’t realize what it meant to have a god complex until then. When your words, even if they are from a character’s mouth and not your own, decide the eternal fate of another person…there’s so, so, so, so, so much weight behind that. And yes, it might only be fiction, but that doesn’t always make it better.
So here’s another question: how can we, as writers, make sure that we are not being preachy with the themes in our fiction?
The problem with this question is that themes are themes. They’re abstract, they’re relative, they aren’t concrete. This makes them difficult to write in a way that doesn’t seem forceful. But at the same time that a theme’s relativity and lack of concreteness is a problem, it’s also the solution.
Just like I tell people about dialogue—What you don’t say is just as important as what you do say.
When you’re writing a theme, try never to state it outright. Use subtext, use objects, use images, use actions. Conversations are great ways to portray themes, yes, but theme in fiction isn’t just about having something to disagree on or start wars over.
The purpose of theme in fiction is to show how your characters are growing.
The elevating of a theme in fiction, and the showing of a character processing through what they believe about that thing, is just as much a part of the character’s journey as is delivering the ring to Mordor.
Just like the outer journey, that inner journey where the theme lies, has its own corresponding plot pattern. It has its start, its rising, its falling, its climax, etc. So essentially what you’re doing when you plot your story—once you realize what the theme is for this character—you’re plotting two interwoven stories.
For example, I’ve mentioned my current project, Venor, before. (If you haven’t heard about it, feel free to click any of the links below to find out more:
In short, the physical journey of the story for Mari and Aelius is this: Mari is working to escape a harem and is trapped by the army with which Aelius is traveling. In order to survive, she must help them break into the city, and then the palace itself. Likewise, Aelius’ outer journey is that she must survive as a soldier, while being female, and trying to earn her father’s respect.
But, their internal themes are something that is vaguely related, but also entirely different. And while the themes are shown to the reader through the external plots, it’s also the interwoven internal plot and struggle that is happening for each character.
Below, you can see a handful of the themes that these two girls are dealing with:
So, what if you don’t know what themes you want to write about?
If you’re paying attention to your character, if you really know them well, those themes will show themselves when they’re ready and you’ll learn how to bring them forward in the editing process.
If you aren’t listening to your character…well, then you’ll probably force them into themes that don’t need to be there.
Please, don’t do that.
But here’s what I would encourage you to do: Yes, always listen to your character. Give them themes that reflect on their journey, on their values, on their desires, on their struggles.
But for god’s sake, kids, write well, yeah? Don’t be boring. Don’t write the same thing as
literally everybody else.
To borrow the words of my dear friend, Windy Darlington (https://windydarlington.wordpress.com/about-me/),
“The themes in fiction today are narrow-minded, similar, lacking in individuality, and dull. Try harder, write better books. Don’t be sorry, be better. Throw out feminism, political correctness, inclusivity, sexual orientation, those dumb high school drama things, the love triangle that doesn’t advance the plot in any way and is absolutely
useless to the characters and the story. Throw out girls being bloody-epic-better-than-the-dudes at everything, have the main characters fail a lot (but reasonably). Stop trying to make all of the villains sympathetic—give us people we can hate with no excuses, give us villains that look petty and stupid and are absolutely hateful. Stop worrying about cultural appropriation and write the damn story based on the damn exotic folktale mythology you want.”
I really love that.
Don’t be sorry, be better.
Final parting advice—Use your gut. Be smart about the themes you pick for your characters. Make sure that theme fits them, that it weaves into their outer and inner journey well. Make sure that the theme has its own plot structure—it’s beginning, its rising, its falling, its climax. Don’t worry if you aren’t sure if you’re getting it right. Your gut will tell you if you’re doing the story and its characters justice.
And if you’re not, keep writing. You can always fix it later.
~ CS Taylor
What are themes you like to see in fiction? What are themes you’ve never seen and would like to see more of in stories? What are themes you’re tired of seeing? What are your tricks for burying themes and making them seem less preachy? Share with us.
CS Taylor was raised on the fairy lit roads somewhere between the backstreet alleys of Jackson, Mississippi, and the jazz infested avenues of New Orleans. Now she’s settled in the open meadows of Iowa where the tulips grow thicker than the grass. She spends her days teaching special needs and gifted children to read and write, and spends her nights star gazing and ignoring her writing. She graduated from Sterling College in 2016 with majors in Writing and Editing and Research Psychology. She graduated from University of Nebraska (Omaha) with her terminal degree in Writing and Editing December of 2017. From there, she plans to follow the River, Muse, and darling, that could take her anywhere.
You can find her anywhere here: