Author-me is part of a wonderful group called the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit, a gang of wonderful young adult writers who join together to promote each other’s work during our publication months. One of my regular questions over the past year has been, “Do you think in themes and, if so, what’s the theme of your book?” Answers have varied. Some authors knew going into the writing exactly what they wanted to say, others realized somewhere along the line that there was a message embedded in the story they wanted to tell. Without fail, every novel will have a theme…something at its emotional heart.
I bring this up because it’s important for an author to identify his or her themes for several reasons. Perhaps the most important is that knowing what’s at the heart of your story helps you develop the character arc. Each and every novel you write should involve change…for the character as well as the world you’re creating. Comfort is stagnation. Stagnation is death. Think of it this way, if your character is untouched by the events that surround her (let’s say ‘her’ for the sake of argument), why should your reader be touched? Whether it’s about acceptance, redemption, spiritual awakening, learning limits, understanding possibilities, trust or whathaveyou, something in the external storyline will click with the protagonist’s inner journey. Not that you have to choose just one theme or that you’ll be limited to one protagonist with a single path. The point is that your story will lack depth if you evolve it without taking into account the emotional arc of your character. (Though, on the flipside, I’ve also seen novels fail where the plot was completely developed to make a point, so, as in all things, there must be balance.)
It’s also crucial to be in touch with your themes to make sure that you’re not recycling them over and over again. Now, most authors will have certain inclinations. For example, I’ve noticed a certain tendency in my own work to write emotionally…well, I want to say constipated, but that will hardly send anyone running to Barnes & Noble…let’s call them inaccessible characters. My heroines like to deal with the world on their own terms; I like to change the rules on them and see whether they sink or swim. Kind of like the old witch test. (Now you all know my dirty little secret.) Here’s the thing—I’ve seen authors, and I’m certainly not exempt, fall into a rut with themes, so that their stories or characters begin to sound the same. You do not want a reader to say, for instance, “Oh, her villains always turn out to be the heroes in the end” or “He’ll discover the meaning of family, realize they’re stronger together than they are apart and good will triumph.” See what I’m saying? It takes all the suspense out of things. So, it’s important to be aware of your themes so that you can shake things up, challenge yourself and constantly surprise your readers.
While I’m on the subject of personal journeys and all that, I’m going to veer from the topic of themes just long enough to touch on something tangential. No path is ever straight or without forks and turns, dead ends, blind alleys or one-way streets. Neither your character’s internal nor external path should be completely straightforward. One of my pet peeves is when characters, faced with monumental decisions, somehow know just the right thing to do every time. Life is full of wrong turns. Throw one or two into your story, give us consequences, really and truly. Give us reality in fiction.
There you have it. I’ve been thinking a lot about themes lately…and pizza, but that hardly seemed a fitting topic for Magical Words! (Unless, of course, it’s Mystic Pizza.) Ta!