What’s your theme?

I had an email from a reader of this blog who asked about themes. (Thank you Ink Paws!) Do I consciously write a book around a theme? Or is the use of themes by writers – as some of her teachers posit – more unconscious?

For me, the answer is sort of yes and no. One thing I don’t ever want to do is write a book that sets out to lecture – so I try not to belabour a point. However, I do consciously write to a theme, taking care that it enhances rather than dominates the story, even as the story that enhances the theme.

Here are some of my themes, and yes, there is often more than one:

The danger of having just one super-power in the world;
how power can corrupt even people who have the best intentions;
how difficult it is to have a truly sustainable society without making incredible sacrifices;
how difficult it is to live with guilt and how much courage it takes;
how easy it is to be patronising about people who are different;
how love doesn’t always conquer all, even though it is important to have it.

All themes from the Isles of Glory trilogy. [The marketing folk in the US who designed the cover seemed to think it was all about swords and sorcery and sex!]

Heart of the Mirage has a theme revolving around the tragedy of stolen children (read the acknowledgements at the back of the book) and what we really are – the person we were born and intended to be, or the person we were made into by our upbringing – or neither. It’s also about how strong women (and strong men, too) can still do foolish things because of love. It’s about how terrible betrayal can be.

The Shadow of Tyr is about deception. It also returns once more to questions of guilt and betrayal. It’s about the hollowness of revenge. It’s about what happens to a child when a mother simply does not have time for him. It’s about whether war can be justified.

Havenstar had themes about religion, about living with uncertainty, about prejudice.

All those themes (and quite a few more!) were deliberate choices, made sometimes before I started the book, or developed from my personal beliefs as I wrote.

So I found it interesting when it was pointed out to me by a fellow writer (and watch out for his new book; it’s brilliant), Russell Kirkpatrick, that there was one all important theme that runs through all my published books that I hadn’t even noticed, and yet is central to them all. When I thought about it, it was so obvious I felt a fool for not recognising that it was there. Duh. I mean, how stupid can you get?

And what was the theme? — Being the outsider in a society.

My main character(s) is always the odd man out, plonked down in a world to which they do not belong, and where they have to learn to cope and survive, and even be happy.

Havenstar: Keris is wrenched from her comfortable, safe niche as a mapmaker’s daughter by circumstances beyond her control and plunged into a world where nothing is comfortable, let alone safe, or even the same from hour to hour.

The Aware: Blaze is the epitome of the outsider – she is even physically marked as an outsider and a non-citizen who is not allowed to fit in by law. (Geez, that sounds familiar when I think about it.)
In Gilfeather, Kelwyn is forced out of his pacifist, sustainable community into a much more violent world, where he is destined to become part of the violence he abhors.
In The Tainted, Ruarth is suddenly human after spending all his life as a bird.
In Heart of the Mirage, Ligea is returned to her real home, only to realise she is a stranger among her own people.

And of course, one doesn’t have to look far to see where all that is coming from…!

Looking back over my life, I see that the first time I became an outsider I was just eleven years old. Our family moved when my father retired. We went from a farm and a rural community to live in the suburbs of a big city. (OK, by today’s standards it wasn’t all that big, but it was back then…) I found myself thrust into a new school and a much more sophisticated society than I was used to, and I still remember how difficult it was.

When I was twenty-five I swapped my country and culture for another; I did the same thing all over again when I was forty-one, and yet again to a totally different society when I was forty-seven. And in the process, I have switched languages four times too. And you know what? It wasn’t always easy.

Yep, no wonder I have issues with being the outsider…

I am off into the wilds for a week tomorrow, camping along the lower reaches of the Sg. Kalumba, a tributary of the Segama River in eastern Sabah, where the proboscis monkey is king, Storm’s Stork nests…and the crocodiles are big. So no posts till Monday 20th.
Until then, let me ask you writers and readers out there:

What are your themes?
Have any of you had themes creep up and clobber you from behind, as I did?

I expect to find lots of replies when I came back. Play nicely, children!


What’s your theme? — 13 Comments

  1. I’ve been the outsider quite a few times in my life. I’m getting used to it.
    When I was eight we moved from England to Spain, and I was thrown into a spanish school where nobody else spoke my language. Before that I was doing well in school, with top grades and so on. Switching languages set me back for a year or two, and the school in Spain was like something out of Oliver Twist.
    A few years later I started secondary school in Spain, but only spent one year there with hundreds of new kids before my family moved back to the UK. Temporarily.
    I then spent four months in a UK boys school – uniform and all – with a completely different and very juvenile-seeming set of class mates.
    Then we moved to Australia and I was dumped into year 11. After two years I passed all my TAE subjects (including top 93% in the state in English, which was quite something since I’d never had any formal training in the language).
    Then it was off to Curtin uni for three years, with another load of strangers. Got my degree and entered the workforce, working as a computer salesman for a small family-run business in West Perth.
    Three years later my parents drafted me into the family business, where responsibilities were piled on one after another until I was running three separate divisions in a company employing over 100 people. At the time I was 21 which meant I was managing people two or three times older, many of whom no doubt felt I was only there because of nepotism. (I did a good job, but that’s beside the point.)
    I’ve felt like an outsider many other times since then, but I’m confident in myself and I’m equally happy speaking to one stranger or a hall packed with hundreds of them. You don’t get to do school visits and lit festivals without developing some kind of shell 😉
    I remarked on Jenny Fallon’s blog recently that I didn’t feel able to write a novel until after I turned 30, despite my packed and varied life up to that point. Experiences shape you, but I think they have to compost a bit before you can start drawing on them.

  2. I like the bit about composting, Simon! So very true. And yes, the experiences do give you confidence – either that, or you go under – and I too feel I can hold my own wherever, now. I have done just about everything – been a housemaid and cleaned bedrooms and loos in a hotel, served dinner for 20 diplomats and the Vice-President of Iran in my own home without any household help, chatted with a Prime Minister (in fact several), chatted to taxi drivers or boatmen in languages not my own; I can dress up and look just dandy or wade through mud with a student and look ridiculous. After all, I’ve made a fool of myself at one time or another on all five continents. (Haven’t got around to Antarctica yet). Ain’t life fun?

  3. Hmmm, the main BMT’s theme was definitely whether a weapon is evil, or just the person who uses it for evil reasons.

    AofG’s theme? Not so much “power corrupts” as “that position of power you strive for might have a few nasty down sides”.

    The BMT prequel and sequel? Not sure yet. I’ll have to wait and see how it evolves.

  4. I think you almost have to be an outsider to be a writer… scary thought that…

    I feel like a theme that keeps hitting me, from other’s comments is the theme of loneliness and lack of self confidence… something I went through lots as a teenager…

    Oh yes, and the problem of three dots… that is always an issue!

  5. this is a wonderful piece on this subject, glenda. intended to blog it but haven’t yet got round to it.

    remember that somewhere in anthony burgess’ autobiography he is in the US as a visiting lecturer and he overhears a lecture about his work as he stands outside the doors of the auditorium – and he hears thing s about his own work which had never occurred to him. will try to find the passage.

  6. thanks Glenda, was really interesting 🙂 sorry I didn’t post before, haven’t been sleeping well and didn’t want to say something stupid 😉

    I’ve not had any themes sneaking up behind me, as far as I know, but then only a few have read my stories 🙂 It may also be because I don’t usually sit down to write with more than one concious theme (if that much!) planned. Then I keep my eyes open and present any other themes that turn up with tea and biscuits.

    I spent most of my life at secondary school as an outsider, and although I have plenty of friends at university, I sometimes wonder how we’re going to stay in touch once I move to Canada. We’re not alone! 😉 I think it’s a good thing to be something of an outsider tbh, you see things more clearly.

    am always very aware of the lack of real life experience I’ve had, but I’ve had some… I’ve become an adult, I’ve created a world with philisophy, theology, individual astronomy and a ton of other detail, I’ve listened and watched people all my life, I’ve loved and it hasn’t always been at all easy, I haven’t hated but I have been hated – and that gives you an idea, I’ve been ambitious and I’ve been discouraged and disillusioned, I’ve been betrayed by people I thought were friends and delt with that and how it has changed me and still does, I’ve been on the recieving end of lifes unfairness both good and bad, I’ve been deliriously happy and I’ve wanted to make myself bleed because I’ve been hurting too much inside to bear, I’ve hurt so much physically that I’ve been unable to move and I’ve felt well again after an illness, I’ve had good times with my friends and I’ve supported them through bad patches and vice versa, I’ve lived in a different country with my bfs family for 3.5months together, 5.5months of a year and I’ve spent days pouring over immigration laws >.< I'm sure there's plenty of stuff I've missed as well, so although I'm very young for a writer, I think I have enough experience to start writing, so long as I'm aware of how much I don't know. chocolatetrudi – BMT is going to have a prequel and sequel? nice. *hopes the prequel is about the hero, as he got kinda shortchanged of hero-space in the triogy* ;p

  7. I just noticed a theme running through a couple of my stories and was reminded of your post.

    Actually I’m not sure that you could call it exactly a “theme” per se, but I realised that all my characters that have parents mentioned, only have one parent (the other one is either dead or irrlevant). Mind you, you don’t have to dig very deep at all to find out where that comes from – my parents got divorced before I was a year old – I’m just surprised at myself for not noticing earlier.

    A large part of it is not having any first hand experience to draw on when writing about two parents interacting from the child’s point of view, so I just avoid it.

  8. I’d go further, Glenda, and add instability to the mix of themes that characterise your work.

    Geographical instability in your writing is epitomised by Havenstar, the Dustel islands in Isles of Glory, and the Mirage in Mirage Makers. There are other kinds of instability too, including illusion. I woudln’t be surprised if this is closely linked to the ‘outsider’ theme. Unfamiliar worlds do feel unstable – nothing is where you expect it to be!

    I must say that this instability is one of the things I love so much about your work.

  9. Interesting stuff – thanks everyone for commenting! Biblio – that link is an excellent summary of exactly what has happened to me and my themes.

    Inkpaws – sounds as though your themes might develop along the same lines as mine, hmm? The outsider in a foreign society…

    Russ-anon, that’s taking it one step further. Funny things, one’s unconscious mind. I wonder what kind of books I would have written had I stayed in Australia?

  10. Sorry, late commenting again. Yes, I think most writers tend to be somewhat outsiders, if only because we have the habit of watching and observing what goes on around us (and even inside ourselves) which has its own distancing effect.

    Themes? Sacrifice, academia (inquisitiveness), the joys of the gods within creation, and – especially in my third, unpublished book – those who watch events unfolding with little or no power to change them (so the reader, being primarily an observer, watches the watcher).

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