So a theme is a subject for discussion. A quality. Something special that stands out. But then we have to be able to break it down further to understand, because how do we define a distinctive quality? And what was that about artistic representation? Basically, theme is how you interpret something and attribute meaning to it. Without theme, a story becomes a report. A painting becomes a few colored splotches on a canvas. There is only ‘it happened’, with no analysis of why or how. Theme breathes life, theme breathes fire.
But, if theme is the product of a single individual’s interpretation, then how is it that an author can knowingly create it? It is true that not all individuals will find the same theme in a piece of writing, and that’s OK; maybe they see something the rest of us don’t. It is equally important to recognize that one book may have many themes. Anything that has an ‘arc’ (a change that occurs across a period of time such as the whole novel, a chapter, a character, or even just one scene) has a theme, and they are not always one and the same.
For most people though, they come to the same conclusion, because the road of self-discovery the character is on will lead them to the theme. Of course, theme is not only created through character. Setting contributes, plot contributes. But because the book is experienced (most often) through the protagonist’s eyes, character plays a pivotal role in theme development. To create this, the author will often begin with a flawed character, who displays the opposite characteristics of the eventual overall theme.
For an example that most people are familiar with, I would say the overall theme of the Harry Potter series is “the strength of friendship in the face of adversity.” The protagonist, Harry, starts out with no friends, and seemingly, no strength. He is puny, weak, and easily overpowered. By the end, he has gained many friends, and defeats Voldemort with their help. Meanwhile, Voldemort, the antagonist, is on a parallel yet contrasting path; he also starts out alone and in hiding, and gains supporters as the series continues. But Voldemort is more into having eternal life than having friends, and ultimately his supporters betray him. Score one for friendship.
When I’m writing, I’ll admit I’m not always purposeful about this. All the same, I know the kind of trials my character must suffer through in order to grow, and I find sometimes theme can help build fire and life into the writing, and make it seem real. So, before I even touch a chapter, I look through the outline I’ve made and condense it into a theme. What is my character going to learn in this chapter? What hardships are they going through? And then I search for a song with the same theme. Music is also important to me; lyrics are just another form of story. Together with the melody, I create the feeling that I want to imbue into my story. I create fire.