If characters form the heart of a book, & the plot its musculo-skeletal system, then the theme is a book's soul; its reason for existing at all.
The theme are the deep
issues - to do, for example, with betrayal, or history, or racial hatred - which sound all the way through the novel.
These themes are not likely to be prominent. Lectures are no good. But if a book reverberates in the memory long after it's been put down - rather like the way a trumpet note sustains itself after the instrument has left the lips - then that's because of the book's theme. A book with a theme is a book with soul.
Have you read To Kill a Mocking Bird? Probably. 10s of millions of people have. But you probably don't recall a
ll that much about the characters. Something, of course, but not much. Equally, you're not likely to recall the plot in much detail. The broad outline, perhaps, but even that'll be hazy.
But do you remember the book's theme? The appalling shock of racial prejudice in the old American South, the burning sense of justice, the desire to put things right? Of course you do. That's why the book sold a trillion copies. That's why you still remember it today, even if it was a decade or three since you read it.
If you haven't read To Kill a Mocking Bird, then perhaps you've read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. What lingers fro
m that? Not the characters or the plot, we'll bet, but rather Le Carre's mesmerising handling of betrayal, loyalty, lies & love.
Or how about Pride & Prejudice? OK, because of its big & small screen outings you probably remember plenty about plot and character. But what about the title? Does that just possibly suggest to you that Jan
e Austen had a theme in mind when she write it?
You can write a bestseller without having a theme, but you can't write a good book without one. You certainly can't write a book that lasts.
You can't just plug a theme into a book. Other things can be planned, crafted & worked at. But if you approach your theme front ways on, it'll sound crass, didactic and off-putting.
So what do you do? Well, the first thing is you write well If your stories, character & prose are suberbly knitted together, you'll just start to see themes forming like a mist rising from a field at dusk. It just happens. That may sound like we ever-so-practical folk at the Writers' Workshop have gone all mystical on you. Well, we haven't: we're just telling it like it is, as always.
Secondly, it's fine to have some ideas in mind as you write. They should stay towards the back of your mind, though: stories MUST be told through character and action, and it's these things which should occupy your conscious attention. But if those things are at the back of your mind, then they'll wriggle their way into your work: trust us.
Trust us on this too: that you'll often enough be surprised by themes. Things will pop up in your work that you never intended to put there. Wel-come all such strangers. Great authors always do.
Last, as you revise your text, you can shape, nudge & tweak things so that those themes become a tad more prominent. Subtlety is the hallmark. Readers are sensitive even to tiny indi-cations. And they don't have to know that they're reading a book with soul. If the soul is there, the reader will find it, whether they know it or not.