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?
I’m in the middle of an ongoing workshop where we’re studying fairy tales and their application to therapy, particularly sandplay therapy. Part of our work in this process is to develop our own fairy tale.
I blogged about it but could get no one to dive in with me.
It’s fascinating. When asked initially what fairy tale came to my mind, without thinking about it, I said The Princess and the Pea.
On the surface it didn’t make much sense, and everyone in the workshop was surprised that I resonated in some way with that particular tale.
As I’ve worked with it though, I think it has to do with the struggle between masculine and feminine in our psyches, and how we turn bruises into strength.
Hah, Dusty, that makes total sense!
Toni, do you mean you blogged about that HERE? I never saw that post. Would love to read it if you’ll link.
Hmm, which fairy tale… I kind of think EAST OF THE SUN AND WEST OF THE MOON. That’s my first thought, but I’d have to think about why.
No, I blogged about it at camera-obscura, and no one was willing to share publicly their own fairy tale connections.
I tend to be extremely open about revealing “personal” stuff, so I forget sometimes that not all my friends/readers are.
I’m still pondering the personal myth question. Most of the time I identify with the strong male characters more so than the females in a story.
X, I think that was on Billie’s blog, not Toni’s.
Fascinating thought, my dear. And for some unknown reason, The Princess and the Pea is resonating with me today, too. I’ve never thought of that character as one of postive power(“turning bruises into strength”) but I sure do like that image.
Sorry, Billie – that’s funny, I was looking at Toni’s photo while I was typing back to you and typed Toni instead of Billie.
Yeah, obviously I’m one of those over-sharers myself.
But you guys have no idea what I’m NOT sharing. 😉
I’ll go find your blog.
I was in the musical version of the Princess and the Pea, ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, in college, so I’m afraid the original tale is a little hazy for me!
Oh, I’m more than FINE being addressed as Toni. 🙂
I had a brief thought about Bobbie Faye in the role of the Princess. The piles of mattresses would catch fire, or tumble down or something. But she’d come out fine in the end.
This segues with JT’s post yesterday, in a way. I am starting to think of all your characters as people in my world, and sometimes it gets murky what’s what. In a Good Way!
Alex,I know you’ve heard of THE GODDESS IN EVERYWOMAN by Jean Shinoda Bolen. Well, when I first read that book — which deals with female Jungian archetypes — I found I definitely identified with . . . oh, this is slightly embarrassing . . . Athena. Yep. Athena.
I’ve also got a deck of tarot cards — and I do very good readings, if coerced — called the Mythic Tarot. I adore this deck, it’s the only one I use.
And, again, I relate to the goddess of wisdome and war more than I’d like to admit.
It’s the combination of detached, but fine intelligence with that fiery action that I really relate to.
Though, now, as a mom, I think I can relate to Demeter quite a bit as well (and Meg and, sometimes, even Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird — with her beautiful innocence and keen observation).
Pari, I LOVE that book – I read it every time I start a new project. Fantastic for character work and thematic structures. Her GODS IN EVERY MAN is essential reading, too.
I see you as Athena and Demeter, too – you certainly are for us, here!
I’m much more a Persephone/Artemis. And specifically the story of Ariadne really resonates for me and in my work.
That’s right, that’s right – we must have readings at LCC!!!
Okay, I’ll bring the cards.
And, I find myself thinking of Persephone when I do intuitive work . . . one foot here and one foot in the subconscious.
I bet Billie will have something to say about that.
Alex — the minute I read about your goddesses, I just went,”Oh, yeah, how absolutely spot on.”
I’m so glad you brought all this up, Pari. I was going to get into it but realized I could and probably should write another whole blog post on it. But you can’t really separate all that from this discussion at all, obviously!
I want a reading too!
Hey, maybe I should look into this as another income stream?
You got it, Billie. Are you coming to any cons?
Billie, that’s hysterical. I am pretty sure at the very least the mattresses would catch on fire. (which is probably very indicative of my own personal mythology)
I guess that’s why I unconsciously typed “Toni” instead of Billie. When I read “Princess and the Pea” I did have an image of Toni/Bobbi Faye and a pile of flaming mattresses
Some things are just – right.
Pari, I’m not sure about writing conferences. I should pick one and go just for the heck of it. I’m going to the international sandplay therapy conference in Savannah, GA, this spring and I’m excited about that one.
What’s a good thriller or suspense con to check out? I’m not really writing thrillers, but suspense comes close.
I want a reading too…
Alex, I’ve been agonizing over this all day. Agonizing. I don’t feel like I have a personal mythology. Taylor is Athena, so I suppose there must be something there, but as you and I have discussed (butterflies & phoenixes) I’m not very good at identifying my internal motivations. I wish I had your ability to cognate and identify. I’m just tumbling through all of this, now especially. I obviously need to think more.
Fabulous topic. I can so see you as Alice, and Ophelia, and any strong female archetype. You are a goddess in your own right. All of our ‘rati women are.
Billie, come to Bouchercon.
JT, honey, don’t be so hard on yourself! It may just be the whole acting thing, you know? When you’ve played a lot of roles, it’s easier to identify which ones are closest to you.
Bouchercon was exactly what I was going to say, Billie – in Baltimore, it’s going to be huge this year.
I told Randy about this, and used the Charlie Brown reference. He immediately called me Lucy. Grr…
My Dad has always called me Stupefyin’ Jones.Being tall helps : )
Stupefyin’ Jones I like.
Randy likes to push the envelope, doesn’t he?
Love The Goddess In Every Woman. It’s one of those essential books that is always within an arm’s reach in my study.
As a young girl, I was very much Demeter/Hestia. How much of that was conditioning and the strong survival instinct that comes from living in an abusive household, I am not sure. I was the one sent to calm my father when he was out of control; I was the peacemaker between them all; I was my mother’s emotional surrogate to everyone in the household, expected to take the pressure of it off of her as much as possible. The niche I carved out was the one that made me valuable and vital to everyone in the home. It also provided me with a safety buffer and the powerful knowledge I was essential for everyone’s survival in my family.
I become more Artemis as I grew older, although the intense rapport I have with animals has always been a major gift since I can remember. They are strangely at ease with me. I feel that as I entered my 30’s, I was able to see the compelling value of seeking truth rather that following tradition and dogma, and just accepting roles cut out for me. Now I am much more of a warrior and I can never see a return to the more passive roles of my youth; the constrictions would destroy me.
DA, thanks for sharing that. A very poignant story and a great analysis/example of how those goddess archetypes are character building – in life and in our writing.
Really, thank you.