I’m not a person who thinks a lot about theme in a novel. When I dissect why I did or did not enjoy a book, you usually hear me discuss, above all things, believable character motivation. (And a decided lack thereof). Many books suffer from the “why didn’t they just do XYZ, which would have been SO much easier and more straightforward?” syndrome. The author answer is, sadly, “Because then there wouldn’t have been a story, silly!” but that’s just terrible. Honestly, I’ll follow any rickety plot if you convince me that the character is realistically motivated to make the plot decisions they’re making.
After that, I’ll critique plot holes, pacing (for sure!) and the writing. But you’ll never hear me say, “I thought the theme was weak” or “I don’t think the author made full use of the theme.” For me as a reader, theme is only working on my subconscious. (Which is not to say that there aren’t books that have totally NAILED theme. There are tons of them. I just don’t notice that element.)
So when I started to work on a broad outline for The Empress Game’s books 2 and 3—using Libbie Hawker's book on plotting called Take Off Your Pants—and it called for coming up with a theme, I was a little stumped.
This recalled me to a recurring discussion about theme that I keep having with one of my critique partners, the lovely and talented Jen Brooks. She has a fantastic YA contemporary fantasy novel out this year, In a World Just Right.
She wrote an introspective and generous blog post about the difference between a “romance novel” and a “love story.” (Don’t get me going on this debate! We disagree ;-) But her great post is here)
She asked me once what I thought the theme of her novel was, because she constantly struggled against her publisher’s classification of her novel as a “YA Romance.” (She considers it a SF novel with romantic elements). I love the book, but I have to admit, I agree with the publisher. To me, the principle motivator of Jonathan’s actions in the book is his love for Kylie. He wants to do what’s best for her, even when it goes against all of his best interests.
When I told her that, though, she told me what her actual theme was, what message she wanted to get across. It was a great theme, don’t get me wrong, but I have to admit, that wasn’t the message I got from the book. I obviously took my own personal experience and viewed the book through that lens. What I saw was profound, but, as I learned, very different from what the author intended.
This brings me to my 2 points. (And what Take Off Your Pants got me thinking about.)
1) The only person who really knows what the theme of the book is, is the author. Which, being a fact, is why I don’t enjoy the literary analysis side of English degrees. (And why I mastered in “Writing” instead of “Literature”)
More importantly, to me, is the thought occurring to me today:
2) It doesn’t matter what theme the author intended. It only matters what the reader takes away from the story.
In the end, you can’t control that. You can try, but everyone’s filters are so strong that invariably your theme will be washed through the experience of your readers’ lives until it (sometimes even) becomes unrecognizable to you.
And that is perfectly fine. After all, as commercial authors, we write to share our stories with others, we don’t just write for ourselves.
I recently met a friend of James’s, and he said that his wife had written an SF novel but she was so shy about it she wouldn’t even let him read it. I offered to help her with the insanity of starting on an agent search and tell her what I’ve learned about the business so far, and her husband said she wasn’t even sure if she wanted to try to sell it. I told him, without any doubt, that I knew, without even meeting her, that she wanted to sell it (or share it at least).
We don’t write a story down for ourselves. We already know the story. It’s in our mind, it keeps us awake, we live and breathe the characters. The reason we slave to capture the essence of the story and these characters on the page is because we are storytellers, yarn-spinners, and we long to share to story with at least that one soul who will “get it.”
I’ve gone totally afield from my topic of theme, but, welcome to the workings of my brain. ;-)