On Writing — The Theme’s the Thing

Theme reminds me of literature classes and discussions about what certain authors meant. I wonder if those authors would agree with the meanings ascribed to their works, or if they are laughing in their graves at our foolishness.

It’s bad enough saddling classics with themes, but I have never seen the purpose of theme as it pertains fiction today. I mean, who cares? When you read Grisham or King or Cornwell, do you stop and ask yourself what the theme is? Of course not. No agent or editor who considered handling one of my books ever asked me my theme, so I have to assume they don’t care either. Yet all the writing experts tell us we must establish a theme before we begin writing our novels.

Themes usually sound clichéd or silly, like “Murder doesn’t pay,” the basic theme of most murder mysteries, or “Love conquers all,” the basic theme of most romances. To a certain extent, all novels have the same underlying theme: “Who are we individually and collectively?” Good fiction brings us closer to knowing the truth about ourselves, our place in the universe, and how we relate to others, but as a theme, it is so broad as to be almost worthless.

Although I’ve never had any use for themes, I decided to do something different and establish one for my current work in progress, a take-off on apocalyptic novels. Turns out it was simple. All I had to do was look at the character sketch I created for the story, and I found this: “He will be forced to decide how much of his freedom he is willing to give up for safety, and how much of his safety he is willing to give up for his freedom.” Sounds like a theme to me. (And an unexpected use of my character sketch.)

Now that I have a theme, what do I do with it? When I need to figure out what my hero will do, I can refer to the theme to help me understand what he wants, what his motivations are. If I need a subplot, I can choose one that will enhance the theme. I can give relationships, especially minor ones, a greater significance by keying them into the theme. I can use it to give scenes and dialogue relevance beyond the immediate. Best of all, if the theme does what it is supposed to, it will give the story an underlying structure and resonance it would not otherwise have.

Maybe those dead writers are not laughing in their graves after all. Maybe they are high-fiving each other because we got what they were trying to say.

Creating a Character — Part IV

In an earlier post, I suggested using the Luscher color test as a means of profiling a character. To see if it would work, I had Chip, the hero of my work in progress, take the test at www.colorquiz.com.

I know enough about Chip and about colors to figure out what his choices might be. Green signifies a stable and balanced character, so that was Chip’s first choice. Blue, signifying tranquility, was his second. Brown, signifying a down-to-earth character was his third. Gray, signifying a preference for a safe, secure and balanced existence was next. Magenta, orange, and yellow were a toss-up since he didn’t particularly care for any of them, and black, signifying negativity, was his last choice.

This was the result of the test:

His Existing Situation: Uneasy and insecure in the existing situation. Needs greater security and a more affectionate environment, or a situation imposing less physical strain.

His Stress Sources: Wishes to be independent, unhampered, and free from any limitation or restriction, other than those which he imposes of himself or by his own choice and decision.

His Restrained Characteristics: Egocentric (self-conscious) and therefore quick to take offense. Wants to broaden his fields of activity and insists that his hopes and ideas are realistic. Distressed by the fear that he may be prevented from doing what he wants; needs both peaceful conditions and quiet reassurance to restore his confidence.

His Desired Objective: Needs a peaceful environment. Wants release from stress, and freedom from conflicts or disagreement. Takes pains to control the situation and its problems by proceeding cautiously. Has sensitivity of feeling and a fine eye for detail.

His Actual Problem: Does not wish to be involved in differences of opinion, contention or argument, preferring to be left in peace.

If you have been following Chip’s development, you can see that this is an interesting and accurate profile. I might have all of my characters take it, especially the minor characters who don’t need a full character sketch. Feel free to do the same.