Saturday, September 19, 2020

Intuitive and Subtle Themes in My Novels by Connie Vines RR#88, @connievines-author

 Most novels have an easily understood point to make to the reader, do your stories ever have more subtle or intuitive themes? 

Thank you Robin for this month's topic.

An easily understood theme.  This statement caused to me chuckle.

When I complete my novel/short-story/article, etc. the theme is easily understood.  Not so when I first sit down at the keyboard.

Even though I write with only a very basic outline (I've evolved or devolved into a panster in my writing process).

And, this process, involves a great deal of fumbling during the process:

1. Look for Your Character’s Theme

Theme is always rooted in character. Your characters, specifically your protagonist, will tell you what your theme is about. Even if you try to tack on another theme, what your story is really about is whatever is at the heart of your character’s internal struggle.

This means you can’t just dream up some wild and unexpected thematic premise and squirt it onto your story like Dijon mustard onto a hot dog bun. You have to start with what you’ve already got. Look at your character—who she/he is and what she//he wants—and look at what she’s/he's doing in the plot.

Now look harder.

Let’s say you’re me and you’re writing a time-travel story (which, it so happens, I am). It’s novella 3 of my Sassy and Fun Fantasy Series about a professor of ancient civilizations and her not-historically-inclined fiancee. While she's the one who finds herself in ancient Egypt, he's the one tasked with bringing her home in time for their wedding.  No superpowers or cell phones in this plot-line.  

On its surface, that’s a story about good versus the unknown/evil, with true-love thrown in as a side dish. No superpowers, cell phones, or time-traveling map.  Our main characters are in huge trouble.

So we dig deeper. We look at what specific struggles this character is facing.

What does he want?

Why does he want it?

What is he willing to selflessly sacrifice to get it?

What is he willing to selfishly sacrifice?

What will he gain and what will he lose by the story’s end?

How will he have changed?

When asking yourself these questions about your character, the right answers probably won’t be immediately evident. You’ll have to think about them. You’ll have to recognize and reject most of the obvious answers. In the process, you may find your conception of the character and plot evolving into something deeper right alongside your theme. Since it's ancient Egypt, it will be an intuitive theme.

2. What’s a General Question You Feel You’re Always Asking About Life?

Don’t stop at the “little” life questions right there in front of your face. Look up and look out. What are the big questions that it seems like you’re always asking in one way or another? Obviously, a novella or short-story won't have a multi-layered plot or a wide-cast-of-characters but there's always a purpose.

3. What’s a Virtue You Feel Is Undervalued?

If you’re writing a story with a Positive Change Arc and a happy ending, then your theme will probably focus on affirming a virtue—love, courage, justice, mercy, kindness, self-sacrifice. If this so, don’t just pick the obvious one—love for romance and courage for action. Instead, choose one that is important to you and that you feel is either undervalued in the world or underrepresented in fiction.

4. I believe Universal Truths Can’t be Unique.

 It’s the way a character wrestles with truth that touches a chord of recognition in the reader. The story feels both thin and heavy-handed when the theme is obvious. Which is not to say that the theme should be deliberately obscured–but that the individual character’s struggle with the theme is what matters most.  I find I often rely on my writer's intuition resulting in a subtle secondary theme.

 5. Translating into my Stories.

"Lynx" Rodeo Romance deals with several themes, one of which is a personal one.  The same is true of "Tanayia--Whisper upon the Water". I believe this is why these novels have received awards and reviews.  Tapping into personal experiences and memories/trauma ring 'true' to others. 

The heart never lies.


On the lighter-side:

These two were banished from my office, for all of  ten minutes, for wrestling.

Chanel (background) Gavin (foreground)

Visit these talented writers to see what stories they are sharing this month: 

Judith Copek

Diane Bator

Fiona McGier

Dr. Bob Rich

Anne Stenhouse

Victoria Chatham

Helena Fairfax

Skye Taylor

Rhobin L Courtright

Happy Reading,



  1. Connie, I fully agree. We need to listen to our characters, not dictate to them.
    But then, your characters are children of your spirit, and what they say comes from within your values.

    Oh, Google is mucking me around, and is pretending I am someone else.
    This is Bob Rich

  2. Hi Connie, Being another pantster, I too have to wait until the theme reveals itself to me. Good advice to use some of the lesser values for added subtlety and depth. anne

  3. I'm glad I'm not the only one who comes to the sense of them WHILE I'm writing but rather Watching it resolve in the choices our characters make.

  4. While I'm a mixture of plotter and pantser, I found your 5 points clarified some of the things I do. Thanks!
    P.S. The new blog look is great!

  5. Thank you everyone for the wonder comments. this new version of blogger isn't allowing me to answer each comment :(. I did visit everyone's blog today but wasn't able to comment via Word Press.

  6. "This means you can’t just dream up some wild and unexpected thematic premise and squirt it onto your story like Dijon mustard onto a hot dog bun." I love this! Yes, your theme has to flow organically from your characters--it can't be superimposed by the author.

  7. I can only imagine how stiff my stories would be if I tried to order my characters around, rather than listening to what they want or are prepared to do. Love your dogs!


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