There was recently some cyber question somewhere, I think on Backspace, I swear I can’t remember where I’ve been lately, about whether the authors there consciously considered theme when they were working on their books.
I was startled, maybe even stunned, to see anyone at all answer that they didn’t.
Personally, I will abandon a book very early on if I can’t see or feel a theme building in it. And I’m mean, as a writer OR a reader. I’m not interested in books that have no clear, dynamic, fascinating theme.
But how do you build theme?
Obviously this is going to be a topic that requires more than one column, but I think I’ll have a crack at it, because it’s winter, and time for introspection and reflection and those bigger, underlying ideas.
Now, first, let me say I don’t think that you have to necessarily know a theme from the inception of a story, but I think that’s true ONLY because – we all come with our own themes built in, and pretty much ready to force their way into a story whether we like it or not. And once you see a theme working, I think it’s both crazy and a betrayal of your story and audience not to work it.
About ten years ago, I think, there was a cocktail party question going around in LA about “personal mythology”. Now that I think about it, it might have been after some broadcast of Joseph Campbell’s THE POWER OF MYTH, or maybe just after the great man died.
The idea was to get to know a person quickly by asking them what their personal mythology was, and people would answer – “Well, I’ve always felt a little like Charlie Brown.” It was a bit of a misleading term, “personal mythology”, because the questions and answers focused around literary or film characters, and it sounds a little coy when I write about it now, but you could get some startling insights into people from their answers, and it sure as hell beat “What’s your sign?” as a pickup line, because the first thing that comes out of a person’s mouth when they’re not anticipating a question like that is very revealing. For example, knowing that a boyfriend had always seen himself as Luke Skywalker, and why, gave me a lot of perspective into his relationship with his father and what he expected of himself. I think we all see ourselves as mythic figures, and project our myths onto the world. And as authors, it’s a great starting point for building character to identify what personal myths our characters have.
Like, at the time that question was being asked I would say I’ve always felt a lot like Alice in Wonderland – yes, part of it was the enormous squiggly hair and long legs and small feet and the fact that half the people I’ve ever met assume my name is Alice because they’re not really listening when I say Alex (or I’ve never quite learned to pronounce it, maybe….)
And then of course, there are the mushrooms —
Well, all right, never mind that.
And then I could go a little deeper and say that Alice is my personal myth because I always feel like this logical little girl in the midst of a bunch of completely colorful and whacked-out characters. I mean, look, I did grow up partly in Berkeley, after all. My first images of adults and the world were pretty crazy.
And I’ve used Alice in Wonderland imagery countless times in my own writing – I often write from the point of view of a feminine observer who ends up in a special world, trying to make sense of a chaotic Wonderland of over-the-top characters around her, who ultimately has to take charge of those characters and that world. When I write a story like that I don’t necessarily think at the time, “Oh, this is another one of my Alice stories” – it’s so ingrained a theme that I don’t have to think about it, but I sure can see it in retrospect.
That wasn’t my only personal myth, either. Meg Murry in A WRINKLE IN TIME was a big one (after the great Madeleine L’Engle died, the women on WriterAction, our screenwriter board, got into a knock-down drag-out brawl about which of us was REALLY Meg Murry. When you think about it, Meg and Alice have a lot in common – they both go into fantastical worlds and end up – sort of – saving the day. The stakes are much higher for Meg, of course – it’s the whole planet she has to save. But the point of view is startlingly similar in many ways.
While I still deeply relate to Alice and feel all the time that I’m living in Wonderland – a fantastical, not quite real world – I’ve moved on from Alice as a core myth (maybe because I’ve become much less an observer and more one of those characters I used to watch, which I’m not sure is completely a good thing…).
I’ve cycled through other myths, of course – there are really dozens when you start to list them. Ophelia is a big one. I’m obsessed with HAMLET (yes, I know, how original of me!) but it’s not Hamlet I relate to in that world, it’s Ophelia. I’ve always found it fascinating that while Hamlet postures and anguishes and pretends and finally works himself into a state that he can have his archaic and pointless revenge, Ophelia just does everything Hamlet is pretending or struggling or agonizing over. Hamlet pretends to go mad over the death of his father – Ophelia does it. Hamlet ponders suicide – Ophelia does it. While I’m not as self-destructive as Ophelia (although I can’t deny I’ve had my moments in the past), I can absolutely relate to her quiet, unobtrusive determination. Because of the profession I’ve chosen I’ve always been in the midst of a lot of mainly men trying to do what I’m trying to do. In high school I was the only female director in the theater department, in college I was one of very few women director/playwrights, and in my screenwriting career I was often the only woman in a room in development meetings. And while a lot of my male college friends strutted and postured about writing, and got a lot of attention for it, I just quietly did it.
In a very dark way I was thinking of that dynamic for my husband and wife in THE PRICE. The husband agonizes for the entire book over what he knows he needs to do, and creates all kinds of sidebar plots for himself about it – but the wife just does it. (Because you know, that’s what women do).
I could go on and on about how I’m also Persephone, and Beatrice from MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and Cassandra, and Dorothy Parker, and Galadriel, but I think you get the drift by now.
And obviously, the point of all these examples is to get you thinking about how considering your own and other people’s personal myths is a great basis for developing deep and interesting and thematic characters, and how that can be a good start on overall theme.
So here’s the game for today.
What’s YOUR personal mythology?