After reading that title, you likely had some kind of answer. Most would probably reply with the genre they write. A fantasy writer, a fiction writer, an outliner, a pantser. When folks ask me that question, I say “I write fantasy for teens.”
But deep down, it’s more than that.
Earlier this year at the 2010 RWA Conference, I had an eye-opening experience. I sat in on a session about theme with English professor and literary critic Sarah Frantz, and romance author Suzanne Brockmann.
They utterly blew me away with their thoughts on theme (that’s a whole different post), but one thing that really resonated with me was when the author said she had a career theme.
A career theme? Whoa. What was that?
In this case, a career theme wasn’t a “What am I going to do when I grow up” question. It was more, “What am I going to do with my characters as they grow up,” question. In other words, what is the central theme that I weave through all my writing, regardless of it’s genre?
I’d never thought about it, but a career theme made sense, especially since I’d had a meeting with my agent that very morning about what project I should work on next. She’d liked one of my ideas because it had a moral gray area, same as my Healing Wars trilogy. Writing in a gray area had worked for me already, and it was the kind of story I enjoyed telling. Folks stuck in the middle where there was no clear right or wrong. Tales that made you think about what you would do in that situation.
This was a theme I could work with no matter what story I was writing. It was universal (as many good themes are) and offered depths I could plumb for conflicts. It also gave me something to think about when I was deciding if a story idea was going to work on not. I’m sure I’m not alone when it comes to staring at a list of ideas and wondering which one I should write next.
During that “next book meeting” with my agent, several of my ideas had sounded interesting, but she said there wasn’t enough inherent conflict in them to carry a whole novel. And she was right. The one that did have enough conflict had that moral gray area, because the theme had conflict on its own, and that translated to the specific story idea.
So, my career theme became: “Moral Gray Areas.” And this is how I benefited from picking it:
- The theme actually helped me see and develop conflicts in my ideas.
- The theme was also something that could help my writing career, by strengthening my identity as a writer.
- If I ever want to try a new genre or age market, my theme can still tie all my work together.
Back when I wrote my first book, The Shifter, I had no clear theme in mind. But since I was already playing with the moral gray area, it just developed as the story unfolded. “How many bad things can you do and still be a good person?” I guess you can even say, does the end justify the means? Another theme that developed was being trapped. Physically, economically, emotionally – almost everyone in the book is trapped in some way. So Book One became a story about a girl trapped in a situation where she’s forced to do bad things for good reasons.
When the second book (Blue Fire) came along, I knew my themes, though I hadn’t yet discovered my career theme idea. But in fiction at least, I was continuing my “bad things/good person” theme. This time, however, the secondary theme was about escape. My protagonist struggled with trying to escape A) the guilt over what she’d done in book one, B) the consequences of those actions, and C) doing it again. You can even see those themes in the book’s cover blurb:
Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.
Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer—if she doesn’t destroy it first.The “Moral Gray Areas” theme is expressed in the following ways:
Guilt: Nya didn’t mean to commit a crime. She risks capture to protect others caught up in that. She has to get them out to keep them safe.
Consequences: Nya is tracked and wanted by authorities, trapped and taken someplace else and trying to uncover plans.
Doing it Again: Nya learns that resolve isn’t enough. To save one thing she loves, she might have to destroy the other. This is her critical role.
Some of these points won’t be clear if you didn’t read Book One: The Shifter, but they refer to things that all center on the theme “Moral Grey Areas.”
This theme also continues in book three (out next October), along with the added theme of taking responsibility and taking a stand. Nya still struggles with everything she’s been through, but as she grows over the course of the series, that theme has also grown. She might still be trapped and trying to escape, but this time, she’s doing it on her terms, and figuring out where that line she can’t cross really is.
And for me? No longer am I someone who just writes fantasy for teens. Now, I’m someone who writes fantasy that explores the moral gray area between right and wrong.
If you’re still developing your skills and figuring out what kind of writer you want to be overall, theme might not be something you have to worry about yet. But thinking about the types of stories you like thematically, could gain you valuable insights into your own style. And if you’re embarking on a publishing career, determining what niche you might fill could save you headaches later on.
Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Necessary Writers.