Have you ever reacted to something—a character, a sentence, an event—in a novel? I mean that gut feeling you get when you read something that produces a visceral reaction? Something that makes you cheer, or cry, or become angry or frustrated? I hope so. That’s part of the joys of reading for me. But have you ever wondered why you reacted as you have? More and more I’m convinced that when you have such a reaction it’s because you’ve hit “theme” in your book.
I love talking about theme. I think it’s a vestigial trait from my teaching days. Theme, very simply, is what the author is saying about a universal truth (as long as truth is relative—some people believe eating animals is a sin and others enjoy hamburgers). The author comes to his or her novel with his or her own life views and often can’t help but express what they believe in their writing.
For example, I often write about the honor in doing the right thing. That doing the right thing, no matter how unpleasant or what the cost, is a noble goal. In my stories I’ve had characters become outlaws because they believe in doing the right thing. Society is wrong, and they can’t go along with society because it would diminish them as human beings. The loss of honor is a greater tragedy than following the rules.
I could give a whole lecture on Theme (and have!), but I recently I was thinking that when I react to something in a book or movie it’s because whatever it is has hit upon my own person universal truth. Another example: in the Dr Who series, the Doctor takes away Donna’s memories and incredible knowledge to save her life (long story—watch the show; it’s fantastic). He decides he can never see her again because of the danger that he would bring to her if she remembered him. He loves her (not as a lover, but as a dear friend), and because he loves her he’d rather give her up than put her in danger. I sobbed at these episodes. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever cried harder than watching the entire Dr. Who series. Now, we’re in the Doctor’s point of view, and I’d wager that Donna would make a different decision, but it doesn’t matter. I can completely relate to the choice made by the Doctor. Because it’s one of my universal truths. I’d rather know someone I love is safe and never see them again, than put their lives in danger. (And it’s a stupid game I play with myself. What if we had a huge natural disaster that separated me forever from my daughters who live on the other side of the country? I would rather know they are safe than have them make the effort to try to find me. Yeah, it’s one of those crazy thoughts that go all too often through my head. Here’s one for you if you want to play along: Aliens suddenly come down to gather humans to save the race from certain death on this planet, but they can only take a certain number. Do you go? Welcome to the world in my head.)
So next time you react to something you’ve seen or read, think about it a moment. What created such a strong reaction from you? And I’m not just talking positive emotions. Want an exercise in frustration and anger? Watch or read Game of Thrones. What an experience.
Books I’m reading now:
A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin (re-reading)
Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare