Theme is a tricky thing to nail down in fiction. Masterclass gives us this:
A literary theme is the main idea or underlying meaning a writer explores in a novel, short story, or other literary work.
Themes can be the broadest of moral messages or very specific reflections or debates on the human condition.
Rhapsody on a Theme
General themes might be love, family, friendship, loyalty. These are ‘universal’ to human experience. They can become more specific such as responsibility, culpability, self-denial. More specific yet might be ‘love conquers all’ or Gordon Gekko’s infamous ‘greed is good, greed works’ creed from Wall Street. That isn’t Wall Street‘s actual theme, Gekko is set up in opposition to the real themes of family and integrity.
No one says theme has to be subtle. Gekko proclaims his creed in a public address. It is direct opposition to protagonist Bud Fox’s father, who represents family and integrity.
In True Grit, the opposing themes are justice versus revenge, with a dash of Wild West courage, fortitude and self-reliance. In Pride and Prejudice (yes, collect a sticker), pride and prejudice are secondary themes to the central concluding theme of love conquers all.
Back to my Novella
The novella began as a prequel to my fantasy series, an introduction to the world and some of the characters from the three full-length novels. It stalled for two reasons.
First of all, I threw in too much plot, in service of my protagonist from the series. She’s a child in the novella and a secondary character. To service that, I added additional characters and an action set-piece. I exceeded the MICE quotient for her sake. Too many ideas, characters and events.
Secondly, for all that plot, I hadn’t worked out the core of the story. It lacked focus. The re-structure and editing of characters and plot restored focus. It left me with five female characters and four relationships:
- Gulatta, my protagonist, with
- Jo, the child she protects
- Niemy, the estranged sister
- Kezia, the slightly twisted mentor/guardian figure
- Rhihan, the friend and surrogate sister.
Although the novella is principally fantasy with (much less) action, what emerges is sisterhood as theme over plot.
Family is a broad theme and there are references to Jo’s monstrous father and whining older brother. Sisterhood is much more specific, illustrated through the relationships of these five female characters.
It’s not the fast-paced adventure I consciously set out to write, but something more reflective than that. And I have five complex female characters pursuing their individual goals and beliefs. Who knew?