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Literary Devices: Themes

As a fan of fantastic fiction, I’ve heard it all:

Fantasy is for kids and nerds.

Science fiction is for geeks.

Speculative fiction isn’t deep enough—it has none of the qualities of literary fiction.

Speculative fiction is too formulaic.

It can’t be hard to write—I mean, just throw in a few swords and dragons, right?

While I will agree that everything is more awesome with dragons, I still cringe when I hear otherwise well-read, intelligent, tolerant people espouse these kinds of opinions. I will say that I think the various forms of speculative fiction are a lot more mainstream now than they used to be, but still, I know I’ve experienced someone looking down his or her nose at me when I mention I read “geek fiction.”

Rather than rant about the lack of respect for genre fiction, I’d prefer to encourage writers of speculative fiction to raise the quality of our genre to a level worthy of respect and admiration in literary communities. Personally, I think we’re already a step ahead. We take “what if” questions to a whole new level. “What if the War of the Roses went incredibly poorly, and there were zombies and dragons too?” (A Song of Ice and Fire) “What if some unnamed cataclysmic disaster left a boy and his father wandering alone in a nuclear-type winter trying to find a safe place to live?” (The Road) “What if earth were attacked by bugs, and the savior of mankind was a child prodigy?” (Ender’s Game)“What if the rise and fall of the Roman Empire happened in space?” (Foundation Trilogy)I mean, you could argue that the initial “what if” is different for each of those books, but the point is that writers of speculative fiction have long been asking questions that turn the known world on its head and make us think.

So how do we take speculative fiction even further beyond formula and raise the quality of it even further? One way is to pay more attention to literary devices. Most likely, you are already using literary devices whether you know it or not, but by being more conscious and intentional about their use, you’ll be able to add literary depth to your work.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at various literary devices and discussing how I think they can help us make our fantasy deeper and richer. This week, I want to look at themes. At its most basic, a theme is just a recurring concept, motif, moral, argument, idea, or message running throughout your story.

  • Themes can be a wonderful way to unify your story across divergent story arcs. Say you want to communicate the idea that brains overcome brawn (The Furies of Calderon). You can have one character clearly at a physical disadvantage who overcomes by wit and brains. That’s a very clear theme in one arc. However, think about another arc in your story. Maybe a brawny swordsman fails despite his brawn, or maybe a character has to choose whether to use brains or brawn, or maybe you can have a character who wins by cheating (using wits) and communicate the dark side of being brainy. You can communicate a similar theme in many different ways.
  • Themes can be a way to look at the same message in different ways. In my own work, I often find themes of equality and human rights cropping up again and again. In Ravenmarked, one storyline explores the darkest side of humanity through a plot involving slavery and Mafia-esque slaving families. In another storyline, a highly competent female character tries to find her place in a world dominated by men. Both storylines look at themes of equality and ask if all humans really are created equally, but through different plots.
  • Themes can be a way to communicate a message or moral without being obvious and heavy-handed. You have to be really, really careful here, because it is very easy to fall into a trap of just preaching through your characters. Very few people buy a book to be preached at—or if they do, they don’t buy it in the fiction section! However, if you have a moral you want to communicate, you can weave it in carefully as you write. This is where the old adage of “show, don’t tell” comes in handy. Show us how your characters feel about and integrate your message into their lives. Make sure to play devil’s advocate as well—show us the downsides of your message, and give us a chance to make up our own minds.

My biggest caution about themes is this: Do not mistake theme for plot and vice versa. Plot is the action of the book—the Point A to Point E via Points B, C, and D. Plot is what happens—the conflict, action, and resolution part of your story. Theme is something you use to help you tell the story.

Take a look atThe Furies of Calderon, Butcher’s plot involves a threat to the Calderon Valley and the struggle of Tavi and his aunt, uncle, and assorted other folk to defeat the threat. The theme is that brains can triumph over brawn. Butcher could have told the story in a different way. He could have given Tavi the same magic as everyone else in the valley, and the plot could have been essentially the same—big threat, people band together, threat defeated (or is it?). But the theme he wanted to communicate required that he design the plot so that Tavi had to win by using his brains because he didn’t have any magical abilities.

Next week, I’ll look at the closely related idea of motifs and talk about how they differ from theme.



  1. Avatar AE Marling says:

    I’m uncomfortable nailing down the themes for my novels, as each reader will see a different facet. I do co-create the novel plot and theme, one weaving into the other into a double helix of misery and triumph.

    One of the greatest themes in fantasy, in my opinion, and on overriding one, is whether or not to access greater power at greater costs. A magic lurks in the night, and it may aid the heroine on her quest. Does she dare use it, when it might change who she is? When it might bring her even more grief?

  2. Avatar Ken says:

    The theme that is running through my as of yet unfinished novel is that of evil deceiving and controlling good to combat evil. I like this over the good vs evil mantra.

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