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What's Your Theme?

What is your story really about?

Most writers are also voracious readers. Most writers have favorite authors whose work they seek out. as you become more and more familiar with your favorite author's writing, you will begin to detect an underlying theme—a sense of the author's mind-set and worldview.

For instance, if you read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, you will be struck by the balance he strikes between idealism and cynicism, duty, and higher duty. The character of Jean Valjean is nicely balanced not only by Javert but by the Thenardiers and Marius as well. Hugo is telling us that life presents challenges, how we accept those challenges determines what kinds of lives we will lead.

If you read the works of Charles Dickens, you will encounter a rare love of language, a skilled insight into the human condition, a powerful streak of irony and outrage, all tempered with an enormous affection for people of goodwill. Coming into the modern realm, if you read Trevanian, you find that many of his characters represent jaded competence dragged back into action. Tom Clancy's heroes represent idealism and competence, the kind of people we want to be.

In the science fiction domain, the stories of Robert A. Heinlein are almost always about the competent man, or at least how he became the competent man. The works of Jack Vance are deliciously nasty and ironic. Harlan Ellison's stories are a scream of consciousness—outrage at the immorality of the universe. Anne McCaffrey's stories are romantic and adventurous, but well cognizant of the discipline necessary for success. Theodore Sturgeon relished the complex dance of emotions when the lives of human beings intersect; he celebrated the joy of being human like no other author in the genre.

Spider Robinson is the only living author who comes close to Sturgeon's love of humanity; his stories are about healing and celebration—combining a healthy mix of music, laughter, and dreadful puns. Isaac Asimov's stories are a testimonial to science in all its forms; he celebrated intelligence for its own sake. Roger Zelazny celebrated adventure. A.E. Van Vogt operated in a dream-time of his own making.

Alfred Bester was a firework explosion of style, idea, and aspiration towards the stars. J.R.R. Tolkien loved the details of the world he created so much that he painted them with painstaking care. Every author has his own way of looking at life. And every author demonstrates it with every story.

Some authors love their characters and take them on marvelous journeys. Some authors love their ideas and explode them in cascades of extrapolation. Some authors engage in political or sexual screeds. (And sacrifice the story on the altar of ideology—Ayn Rand is the best example.) Some authors are self-indulgent to the point of shamelessness. And some authors demonstrate such a truly admirable engagement with humanity that they justify the invention of language as a tool of communication.

When I have had these discussions with writing classes, the question is invariably asked, "What's your theme?"

This is a question that every writer should ponder. "Just why am I writing? What am I saying? What effect am I having on the reader? What effect do I want to produce?"

In my life, I've noticed that situations continue to occur that drag me out of my comfortable chair and put me on the front lines of confrontation and growth. These are called adventures. And as a result of every adventure, I've learned something not only about the world but also about myself—I've become a better person for having been thrust headlong into my own life.

So when folks ask me what's my theme, I say "I'm the involuntary human." I'm the guy who was blithely and unconsciously heading along his own comfortable rut, until life dragged me, kicking and screaming every inch of the way, into my own humanity. And my stories reflect that. My stories are about people waking up to the adventure of their own lives.

What are your stories about?

Learn more about Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

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