Themes have been on my mind, lately. They're a bit of an abstract concept and often I see writers stressing out over them and I've stressed about them myself from time to time. What are themes and what part do they play in writing?
I think that, too often, we think of themes as "morals" or "lessons." But themes are just motifs, subjects that recur in a given work. More overt themes may be used to "teach a lesson" or as "the moral of the story," but a theme can be just an idea that keeps coming up.
I think it helps to look at themes through the POV of an artist. While a painting should be visually pleasing (or disturbing, if that's the point), often that visual medium is made up of symbols. One artist I know worked a peace symbol into everything she painted as a method of spreading peace--and the idea of peace--through her work. That's a theme. It's a reoccurring symbol (and idea behind the symbol) that connects one work to the next.
A book also has to be pleasing (or disturbing, if that's your bag), but it too is made up of symbols. They have to be, they're just words (which are in themselves symbols). It's the recurrence of a given idea or topic that constitutes a theme, but that's not all there is to it. You can't just throw in gerbils every few chapters and *boom* you've got a gerbil-ly theme.
Well, you can, but it may confuse people unless there's an idea behind the gerbil. Now, if you set the gerbil up as a symbol of monotony--always going around on that damn wheel, over and over, the same damn thing--and then you throw one in every few chapters, well you've created a theme. And a tool.
Now, any time you want the reader to think about monotony, or you want your character to think about monotony, you can throw in a gerbil! Speaking literarily, not literally; they tend to splat.
And characters are especially important to theme, because the things your character thinks about, worries about, fights for or against are themes. They have to appear in the story, and they have to recur in the story just to keep the character moving. If your character cares about nothing, that in itself is a theme.
Whether your character is doing what they're doing because of their family, or for friendship, or revenge, or justice, or fame, or money, or acceptance. BAM! There's your theme (or at least one of them). Now, what your story says about that theme is a different matter. That's created by your character's choices and how it ends up for them.
If you're writing a character who's motivated by money and greed and by the end of the story they're giving everything away, you're making a statement on the theme of money. If you're writing a story about a girl who discovers she's descended from an Egyptian god and by the end she's embraced her powers and decided to use them to do good, you're making a statement on the theme of responsibility and power, and possibly divinity.
Because those are the issues your character is dealing with, those are the ideas and concepts which drive the story forward. The more you and your character explore them, the more pronounced the theme, but they're there one way or another.
Theme isn't always consciously constructed, though. We write things based on the way we see the world, people and reality. You're view of irony in the world could lead you to write a story wherein a greedy character wins in the end and becomes rich and famous. That makes a statement, too, whether it was meant to or not. And depending on the angle from which you write it, it could say "character doesn't matter as much as ambition," or "people get what they work for," or simply "life is unfair." You may intend to say any of those things, or the story may simply say it for you because that's how you feel.
Theme is not only at the heart of writing, but it's at our heart as well. We see things (events, characters, settings, objects) the way we see them, and that is communicated in how we write them. Our own views often become the theme, and it's from that, I think, that we've come to think of "themes" as the moral lesson of a story. Because sometimes a theme is all about how we view the world, which is imprinted on our characters, our situations, our plots.
What do you think is the best way to use a theme? What sorts of themes do you often find yourself writing? Do you write them consciously or do your themes just seem to happen?