Creative writing: setting the underlying themes

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Part 4 in the series ‘ enhancing your creative writing talent ’. By Melissa A Joy, fantasy writer and Blackheath Dawn consultant writer.

Have you ever thought of what the underlying themes are in your stories? They can be about anything: true love, ambition, revenge, loneliness, friendship.

There are so many things that can make up the core themes of fiction writing, and you need to determine what they are. You don’t need to know what they all are to begin with, but starting off with a few will certainly help you, and perhaps there will be multitudes of them by the end, but there should be at least a few that make up the overall picture around which everything pivots. In the world I created, the main themes revolve around balance and morality, which happen to be within my own personal core beliefs; so you’ll want to consider your own when thinking about your writing. Law and justice also feature heavily in my writing, and they fit with the themes of balance and morality. If you consider humanity’s past and note down what you know about people in authority who have violated their own laws; famous people who have been able to get away with certain degrees of criminal activity, or perhaps peasants and orphans in eras long since passed when many took to stealing in an attempt to survive in a world where the nobility didn’t share their wealth, then you might call into question where justice and fairness stand.

You can have as many underlying themes to your story’s focus as you want or need, but there should be one or two that serve as the foundations. Buildings require foundations in order to stand solidly, and fiction is no different. If your foundations are not stable, they’re going to collapse eventually and you’ll find yourself having to restructure your work time and time again. Believe me, I’ve been there, and it’s almost certain that all writers have been there at some point. Up until a few years ago I’d written and rewritten the first few chapters multiple times before I finally found the direction I wanted it to take. I tend to find that I work out the fine details as I write, and I often need to think about what’s going to happen in between major events. I then came to realise that identifying those underlying themes is not only beneficial, but essential.

How do you figure out what your underlying themes are going to be then? I don’t just mean the themes that serve as the foundations, but also those that make up the bricks and mortar of your story. Well, your characters could be the best example. What are their morals, motives, needs and ambitions? What drives them? Are they motivated by their beliefs? Do they want to rise to the top of a powerful and influential corporation? As a result of negative events in the past, are they hell bent on revenge? Maybe the rulers of two nations refuse to negotiate and one declares war on the other with your main cast caught in the middle. Or, maybe your themes need to expand beyond that and will affect the entire world you’re writing for, like balance and morality do in my world.

The biggest question in all of this is one that you need to ask yourself; “how well do I know my characters?” The less you know about your characters, the more difficult it is to write about them. We can’t possibly know all of our characters that well as some are much more important than others, but we should try to get to know them well enough to be able to give them enough substance and purpose in the stories that we write. This is something I admittedly struggle with. I have characters I love to write about, I know them inside and out. There are others I really couldn’t care less about and I find it incredibly difficult to write for. However, without them, the story just wouldn’t work and without the themes that flow out from them, the foundations won’t be solidified. Do bear in mind though, that sometimes the underlying themes that are your focal points will only begin to reveal themselves as you write. So the answer can only be…to write and continue writing.

© Melissa A Joy, fantasy writer and Blackheath Dawn consultant writer, 2015

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