Themes

As a writer one of the things that took me longest to figure out was “themes.” And I’ll be honest, I often still don’t get what themes I put in my books. For instance, when a commenter on my blog said that one of the main themes of A Few Good Men was “fatherhood” it was self obviously true, to me. But I wouldn’t have picked it as a theme of the book out of a lineup.

I set out to write a book about freedom, revolution, finding oneself in an oppressive regime, and finding the advantages and costs of finding a group to belong to.

Fatherhood? Sure, it’s there. It’s pretty insistent, actually. But I never thought about it when I wrote the book.

Which, btw, is why I hate with a burning passion twits who used to accost me at parties and ask what was the theme of my books. I mean, it’s not non-fiction. If I wanted to send a message, I’d use western Union. As it was, I was trying to tell stories.

I’ll be honest, I still couldn’t tell you what the themes are, say for the magical Shakespeare series. Or the Dyce Daring Furniture Refinishing Daring Finds mysteries. Yeah, I wrote them. They’re stories. They’re stories I wanted to write. I mean, sure, if I had to write a paper on it, I could make up something and make it stick. Sure. But it would be rather like when I made up bullshit to pass exams.

Which doesn’t mean there are no themes in them. An almost unavoidable themes of my writing is that each individual knows what’s best for them, and that people who try to impose their will on others are varying degrees of evil. Also I am to gather from comments made by my fans (some jokingly) that my characters don’t know how to give up. That they don’t know when they’ve had enough. Which, you know, might be a family resemblance to their creator.

This is true for everyone, I think. Oh, not the inability to lie down and die even if killed. I’ve seen people give up at the first obstacle on the road. It’s just not what I am, or what I do. Annd other people, also, tend to put who they are and what they do in their books. Sometimes despite themselves (and you know exactly what I mean. We’ve all been in the middle of some otherwise enjoyable book, and suddenly you hit something that reveals a weird or repulsive — and obviously unconscious — belief of the author. Used to be those books went into the trash. With kindle, they just get deleted.)

Perhaps it is a mistake — from us living in a universe saturated and shaped by fictional stories — that we also pick out themes in real life. Perhaps it’s an a-posteriori (yeah, PFA) thing. Perhaps we just imagine it’s there.

Or perhaps they’re spun from the fact we’re all human and the “spirit of the age.” Full disclosure, when I was in middle and high school, I could usually fake knowing the theme of some book I hadn’t bothered to read by knowing the movement the writer belonged to, and the general beliefs of the age. (Okay, sometimes it required my reading the first chapter and skimming the last couple of pages.)

Perhaps it’s something like that.

We talk about living in the world, or living in a certain place. But the material thing is that we live in certain times, too. And certain times have their own themes, imposed by what is going on at the time, and well…. where humanity in general and our country and culture is at the time.

Or at least so it seems to me. It could be a mirage, imposed by looking back. I mean part of the problem is that we really only experience a very short portion of the world’s history. It’s like looking out your bedroom window and hypothesizing the world. Sure we can imagine what was visible from other windows/what was going on in other times, but we can’t be sure. We weren’t there, we can’t see it. And the fact that we tend to interpret the past according to the prevailing theories of our own time doesn’t make it clearer in any way.

But I remember, on September eleven of 2001 thinking back to when I was almost ten and going “I should have known that would come up again.”

What do I mean? Well, when i was ten was the first time I became aware of the Olympic games. This was probably because my parents had finally got a TV when I was eight. (Tiny, yes, and black and white. And mom was still not absolutely sure it wasn’t a passing fad.) And Portuguese TV was broadcasting the Olympic games full time (which was strange and wonderful, since everyone knew that TV was only broadcast between the hours of 12 and 2 and then after 6 pm till midnight. Well, the main channel. Channel 2, the intellectual one that broadcast symphonies, British Mysteries and presentations by historians and such (yeah, I liked it, sue me.) was only one six to midnight.)

It was also the first summer that my brother spent away from home (in a beach house with his friends) so I was alone with my parents. It’s hard to explain but with my brother being almost ten years older than I, I had three parents, and arguably my brother was the one I was closest to.

Mostly he was responsible for feeding my addiction to books. Dad tended to have no idea what I was reading (well, he worked, you know) and either bought me fairytales, or, when he realized that was too “young” for me, bought me 1984. (Well, not at ten. At fourteen.)

My brother knew exactly what I was reading at the time, and what was I likely to read/want to read nenxt. And he had a way of “finding” me books by borrowing from friends and relatives. (Books were very expensive relative to our disposable income. Also, they weren’t easy to find. Because, you see, Portugal always did short-print-runs and once they sold they were no more. which meant anything published more than seven years before, and which was not a perennial could be hard to find again. Heck, even perennials, like, say Tom Sawyer, wasn’t available continuously.)

The funny thing is I don’t remember being forlorn. I remember mom talking to someone and saying I was like a ghost, walking around the house on my own. Maybe it was true. maybe it was one of mom’s misunderstandings.

I know before he left on vacation, my brother gave me Asterix and the Olympic games. And dad — who is a big sports fan — was big into the Olympic games, and gave me a history book about the Olympic games in Ancient Greece. I was heavily into Ancient Greece at the time, anyway. I remember the story of the rejected babies being thrown off a rock, and being convinced this would have happened to me because I was so tiny at birth.

I remember being very excited about it, and watching the fire lighting ceremony and….

Yes, 1972. that was the Munich Massacre.

Because I’d bought into the story of how the Olympic games were about international peace. I was young enough to believe in world peace, yes. And then the rearing of hatreds, the killing of innocent athletes. (And let’s talk about themes. Really, this had to happen in Germany. I don’t remember, but it might have been when I found out about the holocaust.) I remember being shocked annd horrified and having a dark stain upon the idea of Olympic games and a pal on the summer.

And then 2001, at the end of a very nice and peaceful summer– out of the blue — there was a massacre of innocents that made me see the world as completely upside down and sideways. Or perhaps as it truly was, though I didn’t like the look of it.

Well, I’m hoping the theme I’m afraid is coming is not …. true.

As I’ve said before, I was born under National Socialism, and I grew up under international socialism. I know what both of those are. I particularly know — not being that young anymore — what incompetent international socialists possessed of bizarre ideas that don’t match reality can do. And how fast. At that, we had it easy. If you want to know what the revolution I experienced in continental Portugal looked linne in what used to be the Portuguese colonies in Africa ask Peter Grant sometime. But make sure you have a strong stomach.)

At the same time, I read Heinlein. And then I read about America. I knew I was going to come to the States, one way or another. Falling in love with Dan and marrying him was just the way it happened, but I’d have come here anyway.

I wanted away from socialism and unfettered state power. I wanted to live to where the constitution was a protection on my natural rights. Truly, you have no idea how things can go South fast where the constitutions are redacted every few years, and no one believes in natural rights. The idiots who think the constitution is old and outdated and want to replace it with the shiny ones where rights are granted by government and pulled from ass, also have no idea. Worse, they’re in the grip of an illusion that they’ll be the ones in power forever.

They won’t. In fact the chances of their obtaining power only exist because they have absolutely no scruples. And have been laying the pathway of fraud forever.

I don’t think they can keep it even if they steal it, mind you. You see, their ideas are so bizarrely at odds with reality. They can destroy, but they can’t create. So I think they take it, they break it, and something else merges.

But the chances of what emerges being a constitutional republic which recognizes the individual’s natural rights, is bloody inexistent. And before we even reach the other side, we’ll all wade through rivers of blood. Let alone what emerges on the other side might very well be another variation of socialism.

I was born under national socialism. I grew up under international socialism. Well, it was the later half of the twentieth century and Europe. Some things are inevitable. Though the turmoil and revolution(s) were unique to that place at that time. Not twenty years before, though. I mean, I was born less than twenty years after World War II.

Themes.

Or a juggernaut of history that was moving long before I was born, and which will trundle on long after I’m gone.

And my time, thank heavens, is not one of the craziest possible. I mean, I study the Tudors. (Shudder.)

But–

But I chose freedom. I would very much have preferred freedom and individualism.

I wake up in the middle of the night, and stare at the ceiling, and wish I knew a magic trick I could do that would stop the deluded, the power hungry and the insane on their tracks. I wish I could make everyone see the future they’re driving us towards.

But, you know, even if my writing were a million times better and better known, yet it wouldn’t do it.

Themes. History has a momentum of its own, driven by immediate and distant events, by crowds, by the narrative that shapes our lives and which is more often than not just a story made up by a group of people who think they can control where history goes. That think history comes with an arrow.

Of course it doesn’t. And they can’t control the trajectory anymore than I can.

But in the dark of night, in the confines of my brain, that’s scant comfort.

40 comments

  1. I think that “fatherhood” commenter was me. I thought it was totally obvious, but I can see why, as the writer, it wouldn’t occur to you. You’re immersed in the story and what happens next. As someone who read the whole book in one gulp, I got to see it as a whole.

  2. IMHO the only legitimate theme for a fiction book is to attempt to entertain the reader.
    When we start talking themes what is really meant is message. And message flows naturally from the mind of the author. Try to force it and you wind up with some of the abysmal crap we get inundated with these days. But Sturgeon’s law ever holds true none the less.
    Write what you know, write what you believe, but over and above all else write what you feel and make every effort to entertain.

    1. The theme of The Odyssey is “the homecoming of the Achaeans”. The fates of the Greek characters in The Illiad are chronicled through the tale of the last of their number to arrive home.
      Many of the side excursions to visit Nestor or the shade of Achilles aren’t really necessary to the plot, but the work would be much the lesser without the context they provide.

      So, yeah. I disagree with your assessment.
      Theme can be an important part of a story.

  3. Seems there’s two ways to get a theme– build the story around the theme, and theme climbs up the story like roses on a trellis. If you’re true to the story, there will be themes.
    Non-exclusive, there. 😀

    The way you play is the way you live– and the stories you tell about yourself are part of both. Of course folks can find themes in their life.

  4. FWIW– with warning that I was never taught about the ’72 massacre— the theme that jumps out with those is something like the school shooter theme: small group does large damage but fails in their goal.

    Beirut barracks bombing goes in there, too. And that mess with the “students” in …Iran?, that ended when Reagan was elected. (Yes, I have trouble telling crazy murderers apart and they aren’t worth looking up.)

    But the Olympics would fit for the shift in attitude towards Israel, reading old books at my grandma’s. I don’t know how to describe it, other than late-70s stuff acts like Israel is something to take seriously, rather than a vaguely religious feel-good-for-the-poor-victims-ain’t-we-grand-for-helping-them vacation spot.

    1. Some of that also had to do with the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars, aka “Israel takes on coalitions that outnumber, outgun, and outproduce it and wins.”

      1. Once you get folks to go look, yes– kind of like how folks are only JUST NOW figuring out that China does things like forced abortions. And threatening family members. And general thuggery.
        Oh, but right now we’re supposed to be upset because…ethnic minority? When they were doing it to EVERYONE it was fine?
        *shakes head*

        1. ….How did anybody miss the forced abortions? I figured everybody knew and some people were just in favor.

          1. I generally figured “in favor” in the sense that they didn’t want to look at it too carefully– ie, at all– because they were focused on the whole Isn’t The One Child Policy So Wonderfully Fair thing.

            To be fair, I never thought too hard on the part where there were waivers so you could have more than one child– I assumed it was utilitarian recognition that you sometimes need replacement numbers, didn’t even THINK of then Han Chinese/The Party/ The Right People getting waivers.

          2. It depends on the abortion. It’s wonderfully amusing to see people scream in favor of abortion on demand EXCEPT when used for sex selection. Then it’s bad. Sex selection is probably the leading cause of abortion in much of Asia because sons are so very, very, very important. Daughters much less so. That makes it bad, but otherwise, abortion on demand is good!

            It makes your head spin.

            1. More people think it should be allowed for any reason at all than for sex selection. (I once brought that up and watched someone contort past belief trying to make out that it wasn’t madness.)

        2. Well, sure! Before, it was equal-opportunity oppression. Now they’re oppressing minorities, that’s EEEVUL!!

          You can be sure, when the Democrats institute their one-party totalitarian communist state, they’ll oppress everybody equally! Of course, some will have to be more equal than others…

        3. It was known in the 70’s that China did forced abortions. Anthropologists who went to China for dissertations came back and said so. And were hounded out of academia. Yes I’m old enough to have been dating a guy getting his PHD in developmental psychology who heard about it. The culture war in academia has been going on a really long time.

          1. I literally saw a pro-choicer saying that if Chinese women were being forced to have abortions on American tax dollars, that was a problem for Chinese women.

  5. I never start writing with a ‘theme’ in mind. I want to tell a story first. Theme emerges based on what the characters say and do and they talk to me and tell me what they need. They do not talk about ‘theme’ or ‘character arc’. They’re real and like real people do what they wish within the constraints imposed upon them.

    Trying to write to ‘theme’ leads directly to boring and didactic.

    But noticing a theme afterwards? Sure. Story flows from your own experiences and each reader will interpret the story through their own experiences and they’ll see things I didn’t see.

  6. Themes… heh

    So some of y’all may know i have a film degree. We had entire classes on theme… well, not separate classes but we spent soooo much time on it….

    Once such class on a midterm we were given a film and expected to explain its theme. five different test versions, with the film changed in each.

    I generally agree with Sarah when discussing themes in my work. The question on the test required us to explain which of the seven major themes the film on our copy of the test was and why….

    So i rebelled a little. I ignored the actual main theme, and picked a different one that i knew I could explain adequately…

    and i got full point value for the question 😀

    No, i don’t remember the film. I pretty much tried to do something similar every time a class hit me with something like that, so it is possible i did it more than once..

      1. Depends on the class. No, seriously. If you do a quick search you can come up with two distinct lists, and variations on them. I am NOT saying google it, i am saying “it varies according to who the teacher learned it from or what book they are using to teach story analysis”

  7. “Which, btw, is why I hate with a burning passion twits who used to accost me at parties and ask what was the theme of my books.”

    This is a problem I hope to have some day. That:
    A) I get to go to parties,
    B) where I don’t have to be quiet in a corner so as not to upset the Normies,
    C) where people actually know I wrote a book,
    D) and care I wrote a book,
    E) and are willing to talk to me about it.

    That would be pretty cool. ~:D

    But as to themes, I maintain that the small selection available today from dead-tree publishers is the reason I quit reading. I don’t want to read about the fallen world that died because Men are Evil. I want to read about Men fighting Evil and winning. I don’t want to hear, one more time, about how Everybody Does It. I would like to hear about the one guy who doesn’t, and how he wins.

    I am about done with Frankenstein, Reverse Frankenstein, upside-down inside-out Frankenstein, etc. Couldn’t the monsters just be monsters? They’re f-ed up and they do bad things. You shoot them. Easy.

    Currently a theme in the robot girlfriend books seems to be “Vengeance is in vain.” Quite a timely theme, I think, given the news is filled with #BLM screaming for payback against Whitey. Not something I’ve seen much of, really. Usually we see The Hero on a self-absorbed rampage to get VENGEANCE for his lost girl/dog/sensei/sibling/partner/whatever. The John Wick theme.

    I want to see The Hero reject all that drama in favor of getting the job done. They kill John Wick’s dog and the master assassin chooses to let them live because he’s got something Important to worry about. That would at least be different.

        1. The proper comment for such a ?? female is “and you and your spiritual sisters are why robot girlfriends are a thing.”
          Keep on and have fun.
          John

          1. You can always come back with a zinger, but it isn’t a “party” anymore if all you’re doing is defending yourself from combative pink-haired sea mammals. More of a trip to the zoo, really.

            But yes, I would say that the “REEEEEEE!!!!” types are the reason robot girlfriends are even an idea these days. A real one would be -so- weird. It looks like a human, but it isn’t one. Very, very weird.

      1. I’d be throw out of any con in Canada. Can’t you hear the conversation?
        SJW) What’s your book about?
        Phantom) Giant tanks and robot girlfriends fighting evil.
        SJW) REEEEEEEEEE!!!!!! SEXIST!!!!!

          1. No, it is much different than that.

            Alien invader makes zombies who attack Our Hero. Who is some random guy that works in an auto-parts store. His solution is giant tanks and robot girlfriends. Because he’s just difficult that way.

    1. Currently a theme in the robot girlfriend books seems to be “Vengeance is in vain.”

      Did you ever watch Gargoyles as a small Phantom? Because as I recall, that was the major theme of the show: “Revenge is a sucker’s game.” The main villain, David Xanatos, was annoyed with the Gargoyles for foiling his schemes, and he’d do them a bad turn if he could, but he never let that dislike distract him from the bigger picture. The minor villains, on the other hand, were obsessed with what “they” had done way back in 1612 or whatever, and thus were far more miserable and less effective.

      1. When I was a small Phantom television was in black and white. ~:D And dinosaurs roamed the earth. I remember Super Car and Fireball XL5 from Saturday morning TV.

        Tell me the hair didn’t go up on your neck when the space ship takes off. Gerry Anderson was a genius.

          1. Joe 90!
            I put Thunderbirds in my second book. How do you transport a 33,000 ton tank and rescue a nuclear submarine that has been taken over by a mind-control virus? You need Thunderbird 2.

            Did you have the Dinky Toys from those shows? My parents still have Lady Penelope’s pink Rolls Royce somewhere in a box.

              1. There are some cool Thunderbirds DVD sets too. I have a set with both the movies in it, Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6.

                Thunderbird 6 gets an appearance in my third book. I figure that gag was obscure enough to get most people scratching their heads.

  8. OK one last LOL. So many of my fave authors have themes that they don’t even realize that they are doing it. But I have discovered all of y’alls hidden secret. Redemption. Fallen person gets up and wins this time. Overcomes personal flaws, bad childhood, being locked away as a spare part for someone…and gets to redeem him/her whatevs self and turns out to be better than he/she/it or anyone expected. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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