Friday, March 20, 2015


"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?
Cheers, Donna


  1. Oh, I loved this. Not only did I ask professors confronting questions, I also find that "themes" come out subconsciously. I reckon just about everyone (at least those who write genre fiction) aims at writing a whacking good story. I know I do. If there's something else for people to chew over, well, that's good, isn't it?

    I entirely agree about Homer. I'm sure he wouldn't have thought of his tale as being "literature".

  2. Thanks for this. As a reader I have been curious about this concept.

  3. Yes, you really touched on something here, Donna. I think as story tellers, our themes emerge from the work rather than the work being shaped by the theme. (Or maybe it's just a plotter vs. pantser thing?)

    I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on symbolism and themes in fiction from peer/buddy Sarah Shade and it really opened my eyes. It dawned on me that I never set out to structure my work around symbolism or theme, but it seems to emerge on its own.

    As you mentioned, once we recognize the emerging theme or symbolism, it can be enhanced. After finishing Farewell Andromeda, I realized how the Andromeda and Milky Way Galaxies symbolized the dynamics between two of the characters in the story (trying to keep this spoiler free). After inspiration hit me, I went back and wrote that thought into the MCs POV.

  4. I don't purposely include theme, or even think about it when I'm writing. It's something I notice emerging and I refine it in edits.

    With the A'yen's Legacy novel I most recently finished, the theme ended up being what does it mean to be free. The hero has on idea of what freedom means, and the heroine has another idea. In the end, she's the one who has to step outside her rigid definition of it and realize he's more right than she is. But he has to accept he has no right to make her choose between his definition and hers.

    I didn't do any of that consciously. I realized what was happening about halfway through the first draft.

  5. Well, that's a unanimous vote so far from the writers that we don't think about themes until way late in the game. If Homer were here, I'm sure he'd agree. So there, Prof. Sanderson! And thanks for stopping by, Joyce! Always glad to let readers in on the process. As you can see, it's often a mystery even to us!

  6. I'm a total pantser - no plotting, no planning, no themes, nada. Then a review will say something about my story, or my editor will make a comment and I'll be well, yeah, it *is* that. Like someone referred to Keir as a Beauty and the Beast story, and my editor commented about it also bring an alien abduction. I'd never thought about either. Mostly my stories are about hope and redemption. An HEA out of tragedy. But I never think 'oh, I'm going to write a cyberpunk about the deeper meaning of what constitutes human identity' or anything like that. I've had comments on the religious aspects of my stories when I'm actually an atheist. I just write the story in my head and my heart. In some ways it often intrigues me what things in my stories call to readers in some way, and how they see things that I never intended or did unconsciously. That actually makes me happy. If they can find their own meaning and connect with the story and/or my characters in a way I never imagined, then I've achieved even more than I hoped for.

  7. I agree absolutely. Themes can grow and be emphasized, but the characters and their interactions drive the story.

  8. I'm redundant at this point, but me too. I can't seem to write a book outside the theme of what it means to be human, but I never set out to do that.


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