Yesterday afternoon, I made as official of a commitment as you can to writing 50,000 words of a manuscript for April’s Camp NaNoWriMo, which is to say that I posted my novel’s title, synopsis, and word count goal on the website. I’ve also decided to do it while working on the latest draft of an existing novel, querying a second, and updating the blog, which doesn’t seem like a wise decision at this stage, but only time will tell. Like I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I’m what the community calls a “planner,” which explains why I have a pretty clear picture of who I consider to be the three main characters and a rough idea of the overall plot that will probably end up going out the window sometime in the next 60 days. As I was typing out my synopsis, though, there were a few story beats that seemed familiar.
If you write enough in the same genres, that’s bound to happen. Audiences and writers have expectations of certain genres, and in order to fit in with other representatives of your genre you need to use some of the tropes, even if you end up deconstructing or otherwise playing around with them. And like I mentioned in a previous post, some people have “thumbprints” that appear in every one of their works, mine being descriptions of food or meals. However, these aren’t the kind of things that I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about are the broad-sounding, abstract ideas that people are looking for when they ask, “What’s it about?” The kind of things that you have to look closely for and probably write about in essays and papers. It turns out that no matter which genre I’m in, what my plot is, or who I’m writing about, I tend to touch on at least one of five ideas. Perhaps this is one of those things that I can best explain by showing you, so here are my five most common themes, in no particular order:
Physical, mental, or emotional. Real or imagined. A lot of the time, my characters struggle with feeling powerless in the face of whatever forces are conspiring against them. Without weakness, there would be no conflict or tension and therefore no story: when weakness pops up in my pieces, it tends to be more of a struggle within the character than a struggle against something external.
It’s easy to pinpoint where my preoccupation with this idea comes from. I’d agree with you if you made the argument that this stems from a past filled with hospitals and diagnoses. However, it probably goes a bit deeper than that and into how this shaped my personality. Because I didn’t “look sick” and because a number of people were convinced I was inventing a health problem for attention, I somehow came to this idea that being strong meant simply ignoring your weaknesses. I learned how to put on a brave face, and even though I spent most if not all of my time as a teenager memorizing the locations of bathrooms and garbage cans wherever I went in the event that I needed one suddenly. As long as I didn’t complain or admit to having a problem, I was strong. It was a misguided and probably very psychologically damaging view, but at least it contributed to my writing.
Physical, psychological, or emotional separation from others. Whether self-imposed or forced on them, if I write a character, odds are good that they’re going to feel so lonely that it hurts. This isn’t just a matter of separating the hero from his friends before he faces the final battle: this is the fact of someone who, for one reason or another, feels like they’re screaming in a crowded room and no one can hear them.
My medical past is probably to blame for this one, too. It’s hard to be a young person, let alone a teenager, with a health problem that few people understand. Mine made it difficult to hang out with people, and while I rarely missed school I would avoid social events because I was worried about what other people would think in the event that I got sick. At some point, I simply stopped being invited, which didn’t help with an otherwise normal teenage feeling of being different and out of place. I spent a lot of time in my imagination, creating worlds where I could function, but still tinged with the feeling of not quite belonging for reasons other people didn’t understand.
Someone else is in charge of your circumstances, life, or destiny, if you believe in that kind of thing. You might be ok with it, but most of the time, you’re not. It’s not really a matter that you or any of my characters is powerless, though: it tends to be more that the controlling party is more powerful.
This stems from me being a coward. It’s as easy as that. My backbone was a pretty recent development, and even now I don’t have much of one. Sure, I wanted to be the cool young adult heroine that got the guy and also overthrew the dystopian regime, but I knew from a very early age that I would be the best friend (and probably end up killed to give the real hero extra motivation) or anonymous, innocent bystander. I could (and still do) see injustice and want to fix it, but don’t quite have the resourcefulness or chutzpah to make it happen. It’s something I’m working on, but in the meantime, I’ll take my crusades to the page, where much more capable characters can fight for me.
Anything from physical shape to an outlook on life. Something happens to a character or even an entire world that changes everything, usually for the worse. This may or may not be necessary for the plot, but either way, there’s probably no going back.
Unlike the rest of the items on this list, I can’t easily pinpoint a reason for my liking this particular theme. The closest I can get to telling you for certain is that this comes from a “write what scares you” kind of place. I’m pretty averse to change, so the idea of everything changing overnight, for better or worse, is legitimately frightening to me. On a purely superficial level, I find small-scale physical and psychological journeys interesting, and they even fit my writing style: I love writing those descriptions, likely to the chagrin of editors who would rather I cut down on my word counts.
What makes us human? Is it what we look like? The fact that we can think and/or feel? Our free will? Our compassion? Our capacity for evil? At what point does someone stop being a human and start being an animal or, worse, a monster or a robot? In real life, it’s something that we take for granted: in fiction, it’s more often than not something that needs to be continuously affirmed or fought for.
Similar to transformation, I’m not sure that I can tell you about my fascination with this idea outside of the fact that I and all of the people I know personally are, in fact, humans. It sounds so trite when I put it that way, but I really do mean it. A lot of what I write involves creating very human, very real (to me, and hopefully to readers) individuals, dropping them into a situation, and stretching their limits. Looking back on a number of my creative projects from college, it was a theme that I see running through those, which makes sense because that’s when I read and was asked to think about everything from alien races in science fiction to the status of slaves in the American colonies to the entire science of psychology. So I suppose part of my fondness for exploring the human psyche is as much the product of my experiences as well as that of the experiences of many other people. Because I don’t know the answers to any of my above questions, it only makes sense that I should fixate on them in everything I write until I do.
So for the rest of you artists, what is your work really about?