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The Complete Guide to Writing Theme in a Novel ... Without Really Trying

This is the one area that writers have the most trouble with. But it doesn't have to be.

Professional writers struggle with it.

Amateurs struggle with it.

In this post, we're going to unpack the tools you need to write a powerful theme in your novel. There's good news—you can do it without really trying! All you need to know are these basic principles, and your story will be organically infused with purpose.

The topics we'll cover:

  • My easy definition of "theme" (hint: you already know what it is)

  • How to find the theme of your novel by examining the core conflict

  • Making sure the theme complements your protagonist (and vice versa)

  • How an anti-hero novel can still have a strong theme

  • Driving home a powerful point … without being "preachy"

Let's get started!

What Is Theme?

The dictionary has a hard-to-nail-down definition of the word "theme": A subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation.

Okay. Not helpful.

I'm going to give you an easier definition—one you can sink your teeth into.

Our working definition of theme for this post will be this:

This is where many writers get confused—they tack a theme onto their story like a sticky note on a bulletin board.

But theme doesn't work that way. A theme is simply a disagreement between two contradictory ideas. When you write a story with a strong theme, you've presented both ideas to your reader in the form of conflict—and given them the chance to draw a conclusion about that conflict.

Never forget: If your story has a core conflict, it already has a theme.

Never forget: If your story has conflict, it already has a theme.

Now, that theme may be hidden, but it's there. Every conflict has a thematic question buried inside. Your job is to dig it up, dust it off, and show your reader every angle of it.

How to Find Your Theme

Look for the morality behind the protagonist’s point of view. They are, after all, the hero of this story. What they believe should have some kind of moral foundation.

Let’s look at a classic example to work this out: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. I‘m going to slightly spoil the story here, so I recommend reading it to gain a fuller understanding of this point.

The protagonist, Gabriel Utterson, is a friend and legal advisor of Dr. Jekyll, a respected doctor in London. Utterson sees the world through the eyes of a lawyer, a perspective that the author chose for good reason—Utterson believes that good people are good and evil people are evil … and there is no blurring the lines between the two.

Choosing Utterson’s legal perspective gave Stevenson the chance to dive into the theme: that good people are capable of doing the most wicked things, even while keeping up appearances. Utterson’s unfailing belief in the goodness of Dr. Jekyll’s character, even in the face of questionable actions, helps drive the story and sends the theme home by the end. Utterson doesn’t want to believe the worst of Jekyll—until Jekyll himself proves Utterson wrong.

Give your protagonist a strong moral belief—even if that belief is flawed. Then have the story affect or change their belief in some way.

Give your protagonist a strong moral belief—even if that belief is flawed. Then have the story affect or change their belief in some way.

Jekyll and Hyde wouldn’t have had the same impact if we didn’t see it through Utterson’s eyes. Because Utterson sees the world in black-and-white, Stevenson gets to prove that sometimes people fall into a gray area and have both good and evil sides.

That said … don’t just give your protagonist any belief, making them a moral puppet. Their belief should be personal.

Make the Theme Personal to Your Protagonist …

Don’t force the protagonist to stand up for high-minded, cosmic principles that have nothing to do with them individually. Your story isn’t a moral treatise; it’s a story about a person. 

The theme must be closely tied to exactly what your main character wants and needs.

If the protagonist needs a passing grade for their next test, their theme should be grounded in something simple, like their conviction to pass the test fairly instead of cheating. It doesn’t need to be deep or complicated—just personal!

Let’s look at The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle.

At the beginning of the book, Robin doesn’t stand for any particular moral. He’s young, energetic, and overconfident, but the only thing on his mind is his own future. But that changes within the first few pages—he kills a man in a fight. Robin, devastated by his guilt, vows to never kill a man in a rage of temper. And, of course, he's tested many times for the rest of the story as an outlaw, giving the theme every chance to prove itself.

Let your main character choose the theme.

Let your main character choose the theme.

Like Robin Hood’s conviction about killing, your protagonist should have a deeply personal reason to believe what they do. This will let your theme stay strong for the whole story—because it hinges on your hero.

... And ​Also ​Be Personal to the Antagonist

On the other side of that coin, your antagonist should personally represent the anti-moral. They should have a personal reason for doing what they’re doing. You don’t have to show that reason to the reader right away—in fact, it’s better if you don’t—but you should know it yourself as the author.

Let's look at Hitchcock's movie To Catch a Thief as an example. (SPOILERS ahead. Go ahead and watch the movie, it's worth every minute. Then come back and read this.)

When a string of jewel burglaries in urban France is blamed on former cat burglar John Robie, Robie starts investigating the robberies to clear his own name. At the end of the movie, we find out that the real thief is a friend of Robie's who's "helped" him throughout the movie. They wanted to frame all the heists on Robie to get personal revenge on him.

To Catch a Thief perfectly ties the anti-moral, thievery, to the antagonist by giving them a personal motive. The antagonist hates Robie and wants him to pay for his old crimes, which were all pardoned for his help in the French Resistance. We learn that the antagonist has a personal stake in all of this, and that drives the story—and the theme—to a thrilling climax and a powerful conclusion.

What If Your Protagonist Isn’t Quite Moral?

Not every story is about a moral protagonist. Sometimes, like in ​A Christmas Carol,​ the hero is more of an anti-hero: someone who lacks the typical qualities of a hero. An antihero isn’t an out-and-out villain, but they’re not quite someone you look up to either. Instead, they are someone to empathize with, pity, or just be amused by.

For example, Ebenezer Scrooge’s greedy, tight-fisted manners originate from his personal experiences in the world. Scrooge believes that if he doesn’t take care of himself, nobody else will. This lets Charles Dickens prove a powerful point about the theme—generosity, the very thing Scrooge despises.

There are many anti-hero stories that still have solid themes: ​The Maltese Falcon, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, ​and many more. These stories still dig into the moral theme beneath the story, but the protagonist doesn’t really represent the good side.

With antiheroes, the key is to find their “good side” beneath all their other less admirable traits. If they’re selfish, or hard-boiled, or insensitive, look past that. Search for a redeeming quality.

With antiheroes, the key is to find their “good side” beneath all the other less admirable traits.

Your reader will be looking for this even harder because they ​want​ to like this character.

So instead of finding the theme in the protagonist’s motivation, look for a theme in their flaws.

For example, if your protagonist is a thief, find the reason why and reveal that secret later in your story. Remember, theme needs two opposing viewpoints, so you will also need a character who is against thievery. Then, explore the theme through a reversed perspective.

Let the Reader Decide!

This is the most important thing to remember about your theme:

Don’t tell the reader the answer.

Show every side of your theme. The good, bad, ugly.

Demonstrate the flaws in the bad guys and in the good guys. The lines are never perfectly drawn. Throw in a few "gray" characters as well—the rebels who aren't loyal to either good or evil. Dive as deep as you can into the mess. Give your reader an experience they won't forget.

Then let your reader think about it, based on what they've seen and heard.

This can be really hard for you, the writer. It’s so tempting to just jump into a monologue about the theme, whether through a character or just in prose, but you have to refrain. "Show, don't tell" applies to your theme, too.

Don't worry about a reader drawing the wrong conclusion. The beautiful thing about truth is it leaves no room for doubt. Truth slices right through the lies and cuts into the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

This is the main difference between a so-called “preachy” story and a powerful one. Don’t talk down to your reader by laying out the lesson in black-and-white. They will know ... and they’ll be more deeply impacted by it.

Remember, a powerful theme doesn’t have to be dark and brooding. Or tragic and tear-jerking.

All your novel needs is a fair presentation of Truth and Lies—giving equal time to both.

If you do that, putting your best story-weaving skills to work and applying the principles in this book, you will write a story that is more than a diversion, a distraction, an escape.

And it will be worth reading.

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Joshua Sword

I'm twenty-six and work as a livestream producer by day. I'm highly facetious. It's very hard to take me seriously, a fact that I carefully nurture and protect, because I don't want people calling me Mr. Josh and kissing my hand and handing me scotch or whatever they do in the serious world. I like my own world just fine.

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