[Quick Note: As I mentioned in one of the earlier Countdown posts, I’m currently on vacation/religious observance in Wisconsin. One consequence of that is that I haven’t had the free time to write these blog posts as efficiently as I would like, so this post is delayed by a day or two from when it should appear. I am going to attempt to double up in order to get back on schedule, and try and prevent any further time slips between now and November]
Do novels need to have a theme?
To truly answer that question, we first have to define what exactly is meant by a “theme,” as I’ve been flipping through Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy’s Writing Fiction for Dummies, let’s go with the explanation they use:
“Fiction is art, and all art carries a message of some sort. We call that message the theme of your story. A theme is the deep meaning of your novel, and many great novels pack powerful themes.”
While I agree to an extent with the first sentence there that “Fiction is art” (Yes, even something like Twilight), I would argue that fiction is only partially art. Novels particularly are the result of a blending of both art and the yeomen’s effort to draft and re-draft, or craft. The authors’ second premise that “all art carries a message of some sort,” is one that I disagree with. For example, while I think Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory is a great painting and arguably the one true masterpiece of the Surrealist movement (and if it weren’t for copyright concerns, you’d see a picture of it here), I don’t feel that it has any deeper meaning or message than simply looking pretty damned cool. And for a painting, I’d argue that’s enough.
For a novel, I’d argue that you don’t need a deeper meaning or message beyond “this story is fun to read, and I want to know what happens to the characters.”
That isn’t to say that a theme won’t emerge organically in a piece. Even if the theme is something as simple as “good will triumph over evil,” or “it is what is within that counts.” I personally believe the emergence of a theme is nothing more than a happy accident, and a nice bonus.
I don’t think setting out to write anything around a thee could ever be a successful approach, as a work in that style rapidly becomes didactic or sermonizing, and no one likes to be preached to unexpectedly. If you don’t believe me, when was the last time you invited some Jehovah’s Witnesses to come in when they knocked upon your door?
When I think of a work that puts a message before entertainment as a novel, I think of the works of Ayn Rand. Whatever you think of Ms. Rand’s Objectivist philosophy and politics, I would say that the hammering home of that philosophical message hurts the narrative energy of Atlas Shrugged. I’ve heard more than one complaint that, part way through John Galt’s 70 page monologue, the driving question of the novel changes from “Who is John Galt?” to “When will John Galt shut the <expletive> up?” Which doesn’t seem like a question you would want people asking of one of your ostensibly heroic characters.
Another book that has a message deeper than the events of its story is C.S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe which includes vast swathes of Christian allegory, that even eight year old me could spot (A heroic character sacrificing himself and coming back from the dead is an obvious parallel even to me then mostly biblically-ignorant self), so why does Rand’s work inspire quotes like this one from Leverage screenwriter John Rogers:
“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged . One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
Whereas Lewis’ work inspires successful television and movie adaptations?
Simple. Lewis remembered something fundamental. The theme, if it exists, should serve the story and not vice versa.
What are your thoughts on themes?