I may by now have slowly brought you round to the idea that there has to be more to your story than your story in order to be successful.
Let me unpack that sentence a little: by ‘successful’ I mean two things — getting published and reaching readers.
To get published — at least by a big traditional publisher — you have to write the kind of thing that passes the gatekeepers of those hallowed institutions, the editors who will read your submissions and make decisions about them. This can be made much more likely by the incorporation into your work of layers, motifs, images, and all the rest of the literary devices that make a work more… well, literary. We’ll use the all-encompassing term ‘theme’ to describe these. Literary editors — trained in the literature of the Western world over the last couple of hundred years at least, probably — like works which smack of literature.
To reach readers, your work needs to have more applicability for them than ‘just a story’. Applicability can range from allegories like Orwell’s Animal Farm right the way through to a reader simply feeling an affinity with a character or story overall. Stories which are about more than a description of events happening to characters are much more likely to appeal to readers, linger in the mind, get a name for themselves and end up as classics.
Literary novels are literary because they have as their foundation a theme or set of themes. Writers of genres like science fiction, fantasy, romance and so on can tend to overlook the depth that theme brings — they tend to get wrapped up in the conventions, tropes and overall excitement that a particular genre can deliver and don’t tend to look beyond those things. ‘Writing to entertain’ gets positioned in many minds as somehow opposed to ‘writing with themes’. They’re not actually opposed at all — or, to put it another way, successful pieces of fiction can be both genre-based and literary.
Take Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example: on the surface it’s a rollicking tale of galactic conflict, planetary politics, weird creatures and strange inventions, as you might expect from a science fiction epic. But it has grown beyond the confines of the science fiction world because it resonates with modern themes like global warming, genetic engineering and world ecology, as well as universal themes like psychology and humanity’s relationship with machines.
Another example is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it has all the trappings of a fantasy novel — it invented most of them. But on another level it’s ’about’ the individual’s moral struggle against overwhelming forces, the inexorable advance of industrialisation, the loss of beauty in the natural world and a host of other things with have more to do with the mentality of the human beings who are reading it than with the ‘story’.
So how exactly do you ‘thematise’ a piece of fiction?
I offer a personal one-to-one service which takes a piece of your work and draws out thematic qualities in it — but I’ll give you an outline here.
Theme is sometimes described as ‘a powerful tool in every writer’s arsenal’. Just Google it and you’ll see. But it’s not just another tool. It’s the core of any successful piece of fiction.
Does it have to do with characters? Partly — but here’s a cautionary tale: about 35 years ago I worked with a young wannabe writer who was writing a science fiction epic. His approach was to outline each major character in detail — to keep a file, in fact, on every character and to extend this file ad infinitum in the hope that said character would spring to life. This got to the point where this young man had file after file in a cabinet, detailing what each of his characters’ most minute traits were, down to the colour of socks they preferred. I kid you not. Do you think the story ever got written? Or, more to the point, had it ever been written, do you think readers would have flocked to read it?
You might have a fictional character right now of whom you are fond, or who sits nicely inside a little story and you don’t want to particularly change anything about him or her. Characters are seen by many authors as starting points around which the rest of a story develops; they are thought of as the sacred almost living touchstones and from them plots grow, or so we are told. But in successful stories — by which I mean thematic stories — this isn’t quite true. Characters are, like everything else in the story, slaves to the theme. That might sound like a radical statement, but I would go even further and state it thus:
A successful character in any lasting, lingering or powerful piece of fiction is a statement of some aspect of the story’s theme.
Thus Adela Quested in Forster’s A Passage to India (which keeps coming up because it’s a very ‘literary’ novel) might be seen as a central focal point around which the plot swirls, but this would be a misunderstanding of her function and role as a character. Adela is a cipher: all characters are ciphers. What gives them life is the Theme of the story. Adela has life because she reflects the feminine helplessness required by the tale’s theme of ‘Meaning versus Meaninglessness’ which powers the novel. Take away that theme somehow and Adela flattens into a foolish, boring, shallow and slightly annoying tourist.
Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is a cipher. He’s fiery, dynamic, nasty, dark, brooding, repugnant, savage — all the things which look like Life on the surface and which give him the longevity in the mind that makes the novel of which he is the star a long-lasting classic. But all of these things are extensions of Brontë’s theme of dark passion and how it tears up human convention and morality. Take away that theme and Heathcliff would collapse like a deflated balloon and become a melodramatic villain.
Yes, a superficial look at fiction apparently reveals that a story’s theme is often derived from the emotional development of its characters as they are driven into situations which place them under stress and engage us as readers. But what’s really engaging us — harder to see because it’s often on an unconscious or semi-conscious level and not something we appreciate more fully until we finish the novel and think about it afterwards — is theme: the central ideas, messages, and overall conceptual impact of the thing.
Characters are chess pieces.
It’s theme that creates the emotional connections that attract readers to your story. The theme outlines the chess game.
The protagonist, for example, is the vehicle through which readers travel into your theme-based universe — but they are part of that theme-based universe, or should be. It’s the theme that pokes out between the lines, through the characters, delivering lessons and emotional experiences. If it weren’t for the theme, your characters would be just words on a page, or a file in a filing cabinet denoting preferred sock colour.
More soon on this - it's pretty central stuff.