Themes – why do we have them?

Sometimes the theme of a novel is not immediately obvious – or is even completely different from the one the writer has in mind. As part of an effort to be a real writer I have been giving some thought to my themes. These are not great big unmanageable themes of life, death, good and evil, but smaller, more everyday themes that might ring a bell with most people.

‘Crime in the Community’ was the most difficult, until I realised it is actually the story of a character’s personal development, wrapped up in some chase scenes and a couple of gunfights. When I considered Christopher’s needs and wishes, it became obvious that he had tried very hard to get control over his life – a life that could easily have descended into chaos if it had been up to his sister Caroline. He was definitely going to feel suspicious and maybe even a bit resentful of anything that looked as if it might test that fragile control to its limits. So the theme of the novel is something like: ‘no matter how hard you try to control your life, you can’t predict what might happen next.’

As far as ‘Homecoming to Death’ is concerned, there is a slightly more abstract idea at work here.  The plot (more of a classic murder mystery than that of ‘Crime in the Community’) revolves around family history, and the bad things that happen when people start to poke around in it. My idea of a theme for this is something like ‘beware of what you might uncover once you look into your family’s past’ but in simpler, more general terms I suppose it is just ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’

I have just today started writing the third novel in the series, ‘A Reformed Character’, as my contribution to National Novel Writing Month. This time I knew what the theme is before I started – which was quite a major step forward in the planning process! It’s a theme I sometimes mull over – a question I think I know the answer to, although I’m willing to be proved wrong if anyone wants to try. It’s the question ‘can anyone ever really change?’ Again there is a saying for this, which is ‘can the leopard change his spots?’ which I happen to know is originally from the Bible – not something I read on a daily basis, but I remember my father using Biblical verses as a kind of secret code to communicate with a work colleague during some sort of a crisis, and that was part of one of the verses. My father wasn’t a spy, I hasten to add!

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