Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Writing Themes

One of my writer friends, Betsy Dornbusch had some interesting things to say about writing themes lately. I repost it here as a guest post:

Balian of Ibelin
We all have personal themes. Often enough we don't think they're original. But think, really think, about how you apply your themes to your stories. Think about the combination of your themes, the things that make your muse sing. Alone, themes are rarely original. But combined with your own sensibility, they suddenly take on a new flavor. And embracing your themes and personal sensibility lends a ton of confidence to your writing. Because how you apply theme(s) to story--that's the original bit. That's all you, something no one can steal or copy.

Make a list of your themes. You can do it in comments or on your own. Don't know them? Or can't quite articulate them? Alexandra Solokoff recommends making a list of films (or books or stories or TV shows, even music, whatever floats you) that appeal to you. Think archetypes, too, even music.

My list would look something like this, in no particular order:
Robin Hood
  • Sons of Anarchy (TV)
  • Rome (TV)
  • THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton
  • Boondock Saints
  • Kingdom of Heaven
  • The Bourne Trilogy
  • Robin Hood, in all its various forms
  • THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST by Stuart Neville
  • JOE PITT series by Charlie Huston
  • Most anything written by Richard Kadrey
  • LOTR films--but really only certain sequences
  • HOUSE TO HOUSE by David Bellavia
  • OFF ARMAGEDDON REEF by David Weber
  • Most punk rock music, particularly Green Day, Cage the Elephant, Sum 41, My Chemical Romance...Okay, there's more. Loads more. Those are off the top of my head. But it's plenty to work with.
Next, we analyze the list. First thing: I like me some MALE PROTAGONISTS, and cute ones at that. I suspect it's because I have two brothers. (My forthcoming book features two brothers and one sister.) Beyond that: VIOLENCE, lots of it. Most of these stories have antagonists who perpetrate a lot of violence. They certainly suffer it. Even punk rock sounds violent. And with violence comes meaningful DEATH.

I like soldiers and WARRIORS dealing out death, and often they're self-appointed, like in Boondock Saints. Occasionally, though, they're stuck in a world they don't really understand, like in OFF ARMAGEDDON REEF and The Bourne Identity. Which leads me to another personal theme: the OUTSIDER. Hell, it's even one of the titles.

Outsiders generally have one or more people they'd die for though, or at least friends. Think Jax in Sons of Anarchy. He'd die for the Sons, even when he disagrees with them. So LOYALTY is one of my themes. Plus, Jax has major father issues, along with Ponyboy, Joe Pitt, and Balian. So PARENTAL ISSUES is another. And several of the stories (Kingdom of Heaven, Saints, LOTR, Kadrey's work, and Robin Hood) have MYSTICAL ELEMENTS AND RELIGION, particularly as an impetus to act. That's a big one for me.
So there you have it: my personal themes. Not very original: Male Protags, Violence, Death, Warriors, Outsiders, Loyalty, Parental issues, Religion, all played with background tracks from American Idiot and Danger Days.

But how I apply it, now there's where I find my originality. That's where it's all me. I've developed characters like rock star assassins, disgruntled mystics, martyr princes, twin demon warriors, Wiccan eco-terrorists, changelings who are determined to wipe out their own kind... I think a lot of those stories are pretty original, and they all stem from my quite unoriginal personal themes.

We have to write to our themes, otherwise we're just not really interested, right? So you may as well know what they are and put them to work for you. So how about you? What are your personal themes and how do they manifest themselves in your work?


  1. That's very smart!

    I'll try it when I have a new WiP.


  2. Good advice Betsy. I think my age and the struggles of my life have made my choices more gentle. That only means that I need soft music on if I'm listening. I enjoy humor in movies but I don't like sitcoms. So...not sure how that translates, but you can rest assured the villain is evil and the battles are bloody in my fantasy novel.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  3. A lot of good fod for thought Betsy!