I’m curious – what do you write about when you write? Yeah, of course I know you write in a bewildering array of genres and sub-genres, and sub-sub-sub-genres…but what do you write about? Yeah, of course I know that each story is different and individual and so on and so forth…but what do you write about? Factory workers, terrorists, magic flying horses, sure, sure, sure…but what do you write about?
What I’m trying to say is, I’m curious to know where you’re coming from. What’s your angle? What’s your message? What’s the theme of your work?
You see, when it comes to writing fiction, I believe that having a message at the centre of your work is an absolutely essential element. It doesn’t have to be something of earth-shattering significance with profound meaning for the entire human race (although you can earn extra bonus points if it is), and it doesn’t have to be so revolutionary that it turns the world on its head (ditto), but there has to be some underlying theme, a subtext buried at the heart of a work of fiction, some consciousness that helps shape the story and guide the characters along their journey, something that encapsulates the philosophies of the writer in a form that can be communicated, however subliminally, to the reader.
I’m thinking along the lines of the Christian story beneath the surface of the Narnia novels as an obvious example, but the philosophy could just as easily be pagan or satanic in origin, or completely unrelated to any form of religion. To be honest, I don’t care if you write about fluffy bunnies living fluffy bunny lives in a fluffy bunny universe, but there’s still got to be a theme to it, some intellectual intent beyond basic nuts-and-bolts storytelling that lifts the piece, gives it real depth, allowing the reader to connect to and to buy into the whole premise.
I suppose that it’s a bit like our lives in general, that feeling that we are more than just animals living self-unaware animal lives, that we have souls, and the imaginations to hold the concept of our own deaths in our minds, and to contemplate the mysterious unknown, the something or somethings that lies beyond death – afterlives, reincarnation, God and heaven, cryogenics and hell. You know, that deep, deep feeling we all have that there has got to be more to life than simply trudging through the twenty-five-and-a-half thousand days that make up our three score years and ten.
And so too with fiction. There’s got to be more to it, and the message, the theme, is it. That’s what not only hooks your readers but brings them back again and again, sometimes to the same piece of work. Even if your theme is just that if all the fluffy little bunnies in the world behaved decently to one another, the fluffy bunny world would be a much better place. That’s as valid a theme as anything else, isn’t it? It works on its own terms, and a great many people would identify and agree with it, and have empathy with the characters which populate this theme-driven story.
So if you write romance, is your message that love is what makes the world go around? Or is the message of your thriller, set among the bulls and bears of Wall Street, that it’s actually money which makes the world go around? Or if you’re a sci-fi writer, is your message that what makes the world go around isn’t God or love or anything else with deeper meaning, but simply mere inertia?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my own themes, all the ideas that run underneath the basic structures and inhabitants of my novels and short stories, and they all seem to boil down to this:
I clearly see the world as a beautiful paradise, populated and controlled by a parasitic species whose civilisations rise and fall without ever learning from their mistakes. I believe that there are far too many people on the planet, and that a very high proportion of them have no place in civilised society. Not that this matters a great deal, because I also believe that 20th century society is in rapid decay in the 21st. All the old taboos that prevented us from falling into unregulated, uncontrolled chaos are fast disappearing, and all notions of law, justice, and morality along with them. I also believe that modern technology has far outpaced the abilities of the common man to understand the secrets of its creation, and when the scientists and engineers are wiped out by new-age savages who think they’re witches, the rest of us will turn into Morlocks. I believe that the world as we know it is falling to pieces and going to hell at the same time…
... but I also believe that there are a small minority of people who still believe in doing the right, the decent thing, who believe in right and wrong, and fairness and justice. These people are few and far between, tiny flickering candles in an eternity of darkness, and those are the people I write about and for.
For the record, I write simple crime novels. No wonder I sell so few.