The Underlying Theme

Courtesy Terribleminds
Courtesy Terribleminds, make with the clicky-clickly

I think I was consciously putting this off.

Not because the idea of establishing a theme for the novel is disinteresting to me, no. I just didn’t want to define a theme and then get preachy about it. I don’t want this to be the kind of story where I decide my theme is “man’s inability to coexist with nature in his quest for lucrative resources” and have the bad guys blast giant trees to bits while sipping coffee and contemplating “shock and awe.”

Okay, all right, enough ragging on Avatar, it was a good movie that is undercut by some crappy story choices and it really isn’t relevant to what I now find myself needing to do.

You see, if someone were to ask me what ‘Citizen in the Wilds’ is about, I’d be at a loss. My impulse would be to launch into a plot synopsis, and that’d bore a potential reader or, worse, potential agent to tears. I certainly don’t want to do that at the upcoming Writer’s Conference in Philly when I’m asked what I’m furiously trying to finish. So let’s see if we can’t nail down a theme, an answer to the question.

Courtesy Wikipedia

The question, as referenced, is “What’s this about?” The question is not, “Who is this about?” I have a protagonist and he’s following an arc that, one or two elements aside, is a pretty archetypal one. I don’t own a copy of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” even though I probably should, but I’ve read and seen enough of these journeys to know what makes a good one and a bad one. Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Alex Rogan, John McClaine and Marty McFly instantly come to mind.

So, just like a plot synopsis, describing how my protagonist starts out, how his circumstances change, when he hits his lowest point and how he manages to overcome the odds is kind of dull in the overarching sense. Besides, as much as I’m trying craft strong, deep characters, the story can’t just be about them. If it were, I’d be guilty of the problem that affects some of BioWare’s games – great characters existing in a lackluster story.

Courtesy Marvel

Peter Parker goes through a bit of a hero’s journey in his origin story, and learns the lesson “With great power comes great responsibility.” I like that lesson, and it certainly applies as a theme to the project at hand. However, is the story really about that? Sure, a lot of the conflict comes from the grand high poobahs of one of the races not using their power & influence responsibly, but that feels more like an impetus for the story to move forward and have tension, rather than what the story is ultimately about. However, I might be on to something with the web-head, here.

Peter has to grow up.

Part of that whole using superpowers responsibly thing involves moving upward from the childlike awe of getting those powers in the first place to realizing how those powers should be used. It’s a lesson that my protagonist learns in a very jarring way, as the use of his magic in the beginning of the story would be a quick way to get himself killed, but as the story goes on and more facts come to light about where he came from, he realizes that his people need to learn a bit about responsibility themselves. The wide-eyed and naive apprentice becomes a dedicated and seasoned teacher. But are people going to be willing to listen to him? How badly have their previous lessons changed their perspective so that any facts he brings to light seem like lies?

Allegories, metaphors and soapbox moments aside, I think I’ve found my theme.

What’s it about?

This is about people learning to use their abilities responsibly, and what happens when they refuse to learn that lesson.

Right. Back to writing about dwarven caverns, forbidden knowledge and turning giant cave-spiders into shishkabobs with stalagmites or melting them with the sudden appearance of magma.

Alchemy’s really fun, when you think about it.


  1. Heh. If you can’t sum up your story’s theme in a sentence or two, you don’t really have a theme, do you? =)

  2. Theme is a thing I just don’t think about until very late in the process, if at all. And then I take a look at the project one day and find it just has all of these themes in it, somehow. I guess my subconscious does all of the heavy lifting without me.

  3. I usually come up with the theme, like, the final theme, when I’m all done.

    Also: nice photo. A little credit would of course make me very happy. 🙂

    — c.

  4. @Chuck – The whole photo’s a link. Caption added for folks who didn’t realize that.

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