Imagine trying to write a story or novel without characters, dialogue, a plot, or a setting.
But do you need a theme?
What’s a story theme?
A story theme is the overarching idea of the book or story.
- They deal with the meta-stuff. Themes are what you think about long after you forget the names of the characters and what they did in each and every scene.
- They’re not genre-specific, age-specific, or time-specific. For instance, Eragon and Don Quixote share the same theme.
- They’re universal. They can be applied to an (almost) infinite number of situations, characters, plots, settings, contexts, etc.
- They’re big. Concepts such as friendship, love, loyalty, class, jealousy, power, and war are not themes. Man against Nature and The Quest are.
In this post I’m going to discuss two themes: Coming of Age and Bildungsroman.
Coming of Age
This theme is definitely one of the most popular in fiction, especially in young adult literature. The novel usually opens with a teen or tween just chilling, and then something happens to change their life. Conflicts, complications, and competing priorities ensue. There is usually an antagonist, a seminal event, and of course, a problem to solve.
By the end of the novel, the protagonist comes to some realization, or is in a different “place.” Often he or she has been disillusioned, only to come to an understanding that even so, they’re now in a better place.
I’d put the following young adult novels in the Coming of Age category: Number the Stars, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Johnny Tremain.
Bildungsroman is very close to Coming of Age, and in fact many people group them together as one theme. My opinion? There are a few subtle differences, and I think it’s instructive to separate them.
The Bildungsroman theme focuses on the moral and emotional growth of the hero, usually beginning in their youth or tweens and ending when they’re well into adulthood. Often the protagonist isn’t such a great guy or gal – or just naive – and through a series of misfortunes and challenges becomes a better human being. Unlike Coming of Age, the point is the character’s growth, not the character him- or herself.
(If you look up the definition of the German word bildung here, you’ll understand why I separate Coming of Age and Bildungsroman.)
My picks for Bildungsroman are Harry Potter, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, and A Thousand Splendid Suns (whose author I mention in this post).
Differences between the 2 themes
Why have I categorized the above four books as Bildungsroman, as opposed to those I labeled Coming of Age novels?
Here’s what I think:
The Coming of Age novel focuses on the process, while the Bildungsroman focuses on the product.
Many of us have been taught that process is more important than product, but in Coming of Age vs. Bildungsroman, “process” is generally a series of happenings that culminate in a climax and then denouement, while “product” is what we can learn from the novel.
There are no hard-and-fast rules, but in general one can learn more from a Bildungsroman than from a Coming of Age novel.
A Coming of Age novel seems to me to have more of an immediate feel, and the hero’s change or realization comes quicker than in a Bildungsroman. What’s more, there might not even be a noticeable change in the hero’s character; the book might merely depict a page out of his or her life.
Process vs. product in action
In Number the Stars, for example, Annemarie is doing “big girl” things such as defying the Nazis and helping Jews cross over from Denmark to Sweden during Word War II. Although she certainly matures from the slightly frivolous and scared little girl in the first chapter or two, she is essentially a good girl with good parents, and her growth feels organic and in line with her personality – just sped up a bit in order to keep ahead of the bad guys. We enjoy the novel, but it doesn’t stir us to become Mother Theresa because of it.
In the Harry Potter series, on the other hand, Harry starts as a lonely, ignored boy and ends as an adult capable of, basically, saving the world.
One could, of course, argue that Harry had integrity already in the first book (which doesn’t necessarily break the Bildungsroman rules), and didn’t need to learn how to be a “good guy.” One could also argue the converse, that Harry never really learned to follow the rules, so how is he any better in Book 7?
However, the depth and breadth (and length) of the series convinces me that Harry Potter is a Bildungsroman.
Moreover, the issues of friendship, courage, loss, love, values, and yes, even saving the world have more universal appeal in Harry Potter than the issues explored in Number the Stars do. They make a more lasting impression on those who read the series than do most Coming of Age novels.
In Coming of Age novels, the protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to become a new or better person.
Take Huckleberry Finn, for example. Other than Huck’s sort of learning that Jim is actually a human being and not just a slave to be used and ignored, in my opinion he hasn’t really changed at the end. I simply don’t agree with the Cliff Notes that by the end of the book he’s free of bigotry and has a moral compass.
I know: “The Mississippi River is a symbol for equality of all human beings, etc.” – I also learned that in high school – but when you come right down to it, Huck is still a jerk at the end, and the book, while great, is basically a series of adventures.
The book traces the lives of two very different women growing up in pre-, present-, and post-Taliban rule of Afghanistan, and by the end of the novel both have been profoundly changed by the trajectory of their – and each other’s – lives. The book is no series of adventures, but a study of life and change.
A few more observations
Notice that seven out of the eight books I mentioned in this post are about orphans. Apparently, it’s much more convenient to get rid of parents and family while the hero is coming of age or having moral growth.
Don’t get hung up on which theme you’re using! I wrote this post in order for you to have a checklist, as it were, when writing your story or novel. For instance, you don’t want to write about someone’s adolescence if at the end they are in the exact same place as they were at the beginning of the book.
Don’t stuff themes down your readers’ throats. It’s enough that you know what you’re doing; that will invisibly give your work audience appeal. This is a situation where you should “sweat the small stuff.” Everything will come together into a seamless whole at the end.
In my next post, I’ll be discussing a few more literary themes. In the meantime, think about a few of your favorite books of all time. What were their themes? Can you boil each book down to one universal theme?
Let me know in the Comments which books you thought of, and their themes.
Extra credit: How many themes are there in literature? And do you think every book must have a theme? Let me know.
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