|"Once upon a time in Greece . . ."|
I had a reputation as a bit of a scrapper in college. You know the type—always asking the professor some crazy question that made his head explode. In one memorable instance I argued with an English prof that Homer couldn’t possibly have planned to write anything “deep and meaningful” when he produced the Odyssey. He was simply entertaining a bunch of drunk, rowdy Greeks at a feast that was teetering on the edge of an orgy.
The prof, a young, very earnest fellow who lived and breathed Homer, was outraged.
I still maintain that Homer was just trying to write a whacking good story. He succeeded beyond his wildest expectation. But I don’t believe he sat in his room the afternoon of the feast and thought, “Let’s see, what’s a universal theme that will ensure everyone will pay attention? Ah, I have it. A quest. Then, man vs. the gods, that’s always a good one.”
I had nothing but my instinct as a reader to go on in those days. But now, as an author, I’m even more convinced. Because whatever depth I may have as a writer comes from my unconscious, a place of pre-thought and intuition. I may recognize it once it’s on the page, and highlight it in a later draft, but I have never set out to write to a theme. More often than not, things emerge in my writing that only the readers can identify. Now that Unchained Memory is out in the world, I’m beginning to experience this on a wider scale.
Someone asked me the other day whether the names I chose had special significance. While I was stammering out an answer (something along the lines of “not really”), she explained that “Jack” (the name of the rescued child who comes to live with Ethan and Asia at the end of the story) is a symbol for the Everyman in literature, standing in for all humanity. She was very excited. (Just wait until she reads my second book, where Jack is a central character!)
Let me just state for the record and for the benefit of any college student who may be tempted to argue with her literature professor in years to come about my books (ha!) that I gave not an instant’s thought to the deeper meaning of the name “Jack” when I chose it. My muse, my writer’s intuition, the accumulated knowledge of my lifetime—however you choose to describe it—supplied the name for this child, and it seemed to fit. Now it could very well be that I’m smarter than I realize, but drawing on my knowledge of the classics (such as the concept of Jack=Everyman) would still be an entirely unconscious process.
Another reader made note in a review of my theme of empowering women in Unchained Memory, expressed through strong secondary female characters. Huh. How about that! I just set out to populate my story with interesting, finely drawn characters. Similar to the diversity we addressed last week here at Spacefreighters, I simply looked around and described what I saw—strong women of all ages living active lives.
Not that we writers have to be completely oblivious to the power of a good theme, particularly across series. I attended a workshop at RWA National a few years back presented by the wonderful Suzanne Brockman. She fully acknowledged that themes emerge as we’re writing, but insisted they can be picked out, shaped and highlighted in subsequent drafts until they serve both to bind the book together and to tie the book to its series.
I’m still working on identifying my overarching themes, but a few of them are: love as healing; equality in relationships; finding home/community; our world is not what it seems; and, yes, good vs. evil. My readers may see these, or a slew of others, as they read the books. But who knows? I encourage any and all interpretations. After all, I’m just trying to tell a whacking good story.
How about you, fellow authors? Found any good themes in your writing lately? Or has a reader educated you? And readers, what are your favorite themes?