by Krishna

Question: I've had difficulty understanding this for quite a while. What is theme exactly? What I mean is, why is it needed in a story? Isn't it because everything is and/or should be centered around it or is it because it's more like a 'moral of the story' type of thing? I personally think it's both. However, I don't understand how it affects the story and its charracters. The theme is kind of like the accomplishmnet or tradegy at the end of a novel or movie, it's what has been driving the story since the beggining, isn't it? I don't understand. Does the theme cause characters to do certain things? Can it change throughout the story itself? How does the story build itself around the theme itself? For example, the theme "good vs. evil," just because my hero wants to beat up so n' so doesn't exactly give a person a story to work with. There are many things to mix and match throughout a story to get any and every outcome. Your hero could be a little kid standing up to a bully, running for his/her life from a secret society that killed their family - the possibilites are endless. What I would like to know, is how this works. What kinds of themes are there and if I pick a certain theme, how can I portray this in a novel? How could I portray this through dialogue, character actions, etc.,? In the Hunger Games, I guess the theme is "Survival," right? I can vaguely see how that affects a story. Regardless, how can certain actions influence the overall outcome of an event, launching a character into something they didn't expect, so that now they have to do a certain 'list' of things to return to their 'normal,' which at the end of their story, they realize this can never happen, and must accept thier 'new normal.' That would be a 'Voyage and Return' type of plotline, but what would a type of theme would be? I hope this somehow makes sense. I really have no idea. Thanks for reading, I know it's probably really long! :)

Answer: Your confusion is perfectly understandable. The word 'theme' has at least three different meanings which are often treated as interchangeable. So it can depend who you are talking to.

For instance, theme can mean...

1. The subject matter of a work. A story can explore and depict various topics or areas of human experience, such as autism, race car driving, 16th century France, space exploration, war, etc. Often, the point of this exploration is simply to give readers the experience of learning about a subject or a world of experience that is outside their own lives.

2. Motif. Writers can repeat particular ideas, items, or subjects within a work as a unifying element. The idea is not to inform the reader (as above) but simply to add a sense of structure to the story world. For example, in James Joyce's story, "The Dead," music is a motif. Throughout the story, characters are either talking about music or performing music, but the reader is not really being informed about music and music is not being explored as a subject matter.

3. Message. When we talk about the thematic message or moral of a story, we are talking about various approaches to solving problems and which approaches are more valuable.

For instance, you might have a story set in a world where everyone values pursuing their own self-interest. Then you would set up the opposite value as a counterpoint, for instance altruism. Various events in the story will demonstrate what happens when either of these two approaches is taken. As the evidence piles up, it invites the reader to weigh up which approach is really the most valuable. So the message of the story becomes, "When faced with this type of problem, X is a more valuable approach than Y."

Of course, each of the four throughlines can have it's own thematic argument. In addition to the debate taking place in the overall story world, you can have a ...

Main Character Theme: in which the main character struggles to resolve a conflict of values within him/herself.

Impact Character Theme: in which we see the impact character wrestling with a conflict of values.

Relationship Theme: in which the main and impact characters wrestle with the fact that they share a particular value that sets them apart from the other characters in the story world.

All this makes theme a very complex subject, which makes for fun debates among readers over what the real theme or message of a particular book is.

For instance, in The Hunger Games, while the story goal is survival, there is a debate about the right way to achieve this. Katniss, for example, survives by adapting to the conditions of the world around her. Peeta, on the other hand, believes that survival means not letting himself be changed by the world.

We see a world struggling with whether people are commodities whose only value is in serving the Capitol, or whether they are valuable in themselves. We have a debate about whether fear can be used to divide people or ultimately makes them into allies.

Then we have various subjects being explored, such as the exploitation of children, political power, stardom, reality television, propaganda, the Roman games, resource depletion, income inequality, etc.

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