I learned something new the other day. Not every culture sees a man in the moon. My culture sees a man. Other cultures see animals, a rabbit, in the case of the Chinese. When considering themes in your writing, it’s a good idea to check the cultural leanings of your audience. Often, people read their own symbolism into a particular work. That’s not to say the author didn’t put anything in, only that people see what they want to. Like the man or rabbit in the moon.
I once read an essay by Amy Tam on her work, The Joy Luck Club. She told the story of how a student once wrote her a letter telling her that he did his dissertation on Tam’s symbolism in the use of the number four. She said her initial reaction was that she’d overused the number four. The student read something into her work that she didn’t put in. She did her job. She made him think. That’s what a theme can do for your work. It adds another layer for the reader.
I don’t usually consider the theme of my work, but looking my writing over, I see themes. I didn’t consciously put any in, but there they are. It’s usually that if you do something wrong, you will pay for it—eventually. I think karma is real and it will get you. That’s what appears to be my pervading theme for my work.
Theme is hard to weave into your stories. That’s why I don’t. It creeps in though because no matter what you do, someone is going to see something in your writing that touches them, whether you put it there or not. English teachers in America have students pick apart a novel looking for symbolic meanings. I’ve often wondered if those meanings are really there by author intent, or if we just impose our world or cultural views on the work. That’s my opinion. I stand by it, but I am also aware that it could be wrong. I accept that.
When you write, you can hold a theme in the back of your mind as you choose your words. The theme will creep in with your word choices. That’s the writing process. Just don’t be surprised when people see other symbolism in your work. As authors, we have done our jobs if we only get someone to think about something from our work.
That’s not to say having a theme is not important. It is, but only to the point that there are other elements to our writing that should take precedence over theme. A story without a good plot is not much of a story. So have your theme in mind, but don’t let it take over the story. You are writing a story, not a lecture.