The difference between a unique theme and a hackneyed theme actually has much less to do with the theme itself than it does with the execution. Creating freshness and vibrancy doesn’t mean you have to posit something radical. It does mean whatever you posit must be radically and honestly personal to you. Tell me good triumphs over evil (again), and I may close the book yawning. Tell me good triumphs over evil as if your life depends on it—and I’ll remember you.
Three tips for refining your thematic ideas to find their unique cores.
Look for Your Character’s Theme
Theme is always rooted in character. Your characters, specifically your protagonist, will tell you what your theme is about. Even if you try to tack on another theme, what your story is really about is whatever is at the heart of your character’s internal struggle.
This means you can’t just dream up some wild and unexpected thematic premise and squirt it onto your story like Dijon mustard onto a casserole. You have to start with what you’ve already got. Look at your character—who she is and what she wants—and look at what she’s doing in the plot.
Now look harder.
Let’s say you’re me and you’re writing a historical adventure story called Wayfarer (which, it so happens, I am). It’s a coming-of-age story about a kid who gets superpowers and runs around the city figuring out what it means to be the good guy and save the day.
On its surface, that’s a story about good versus evil, with maybe growing up thrown in as a side dish. Or maybe, like Spidey, he’s learning that with great power comes responsibility. All of those ideas are inherent within the story’s premise. But there’s nothing unique there. More to the point: there’s nothing personal there.
So we dig deeper. We look at what specific struggles this character is facing.
- What does he want?
- Why does he want it?
- What is he willing to selflessly sacrifice to get it?
- What is he willing to selfishly sacrifice?
- What will he gain and what he will lose by the story’s end?
- How will he have changed?
When asking yourself these questions about your character, the right answers probably won’t be immediately evident. You’ll have to think about them, roll them around in your brain. You’ll have to recognize and reject most of the obvious answers. In the process, you may find your conception of the character and plot evolving into something deeper right alongside your theme.
Your characters will give you specific manifestations of the themes that are most pertinent to your plot. But your characters are really just extensions of you. To tap into the kind of passionate honesty that creates earnestly unique themes, you have to first ask yourself some probing questions.
- What’s a Specific Question You’re Asking About Life Right Now?
Boring themes are answers. Love conquers all. Yawn. But reframe it as a question: Does love really conquer all? Once you find a question to which you honestly don’t know the answer, you know you’ve found an interesting thematic possibility.
Consider the issues that are most on your heart right now. What do you find yourself constantly chewing on? Maybe it’s a political or social question, or maybe it’s a deeply personal question about yourself or your relationships. Maybe it’s a question about an illness or work struggle you’re trying to figure out.
Whatever the case, I guarantee there’s grist for the mill right there. In writing about it honestly, you may just find some of your own answers along the way.
- What’s a General Question You Feel You’re Always Asking About Life?
Don’t stop at the “little” life questions right there in front of your face. Look up and look out. What are the big questions that it seems like you’re always asking in one way or another?
I realized just this week that one of the themes that crops up again and again in my stories is that of identity. My characters are always asking who they are and what their purpose is. Although I don’t deliberately insert this premise into my stories, it’s always there because it’s central to many of the questions I slowly ponder in the back of my own mind all the time.
- What’s a Virtue You Feel Is Undervalued?
If you’re writing a story with a Positive Change Arc and a happy ending, then your theme will probably focus on affirming a virtue—love, courage, justice, mercy, kindness, self-sacrifice. If this so, don’t just pick the obvious one—love for romance and courage for action. Instead, choose one that is important to you and that you feel is either undervalued in the world or underrepresented in fiction.
Make a list of the top five virtues or good qualities you value in others and try to cultivate in yourself. How can you thematically explore the difficulties, downfalls, and rewards of these traits in an honest way?
- What’s a Vice That Scares You?
Where there’s a virtue, there’s a vice. Maybe you’re writing a dark story with a Negative Change Arc. Or maybe you just want to explore the downfall of your antagonist. Either way, consider the flipside of your favorite virtues. What are the vices you see that really get under your skin? Murder, rape, child abuse, substance abuse—those are all big ones. But look at the littler ones too—white lies, verbal insensitivity, maybe even workaholicism.
Look specifically for something that gives you a visceral reaction. If it scares you deep in the pit of your stomach, you know you have to write about it. Or, if it’s a lesser vice, maybe it’s just something that irks you, that makes you hot under the collar, that makes you want to lash back with some equally unattractive vice of your own.
We all deplore the actions human take that hurt one another—from war right on down to petty shoplifting. But don’t mount a moral high horse just because it’s obvious. Choose a vice that has personal significance for you—and use your writing to find out why.
Ground Familiar Themes in Fresh Milieus
Original stories are rarely stories that blare their uniqueness in every aspect. Instead, they’re stories that take a fresh look at otherwise familiar elements.
- Star Wars was famously a new riff on westerns.
- The Book Thief is a predictable Holocaust story that became beloved because of its earnestness and its unexpected narrator.
- The Princess Bride is an utterly familiar fairy tale told in a completely unfamiliar way.
Arguably, none of the themes in these stories is unique. But the stories themselves feel fresh because the messages and milieus used to convey the themes are unexpected.
Archetypal characters, plots, and themes will never grow old. As long as humans are living, loving, fighting, wondering, suffering, laughing, and dying—the fundamental things apply.
But if you find yourself writing a certain type of story that always portrays a certain type of theme, stop and question yourself.
Would this theme have something better to say in a different story, a different genre, a different plot?
Or, conversely, would a different theme make everything else about this story absolutely pop?
Finding the right theme for the right story is the secret to writing stories that are universal and yet feel utterly unique and original. Don’t give up until you find one!