Monday, August 15, 2011

What's It All About?

As I labor through the early stages of writing my next novel, Proximity, I find that it’s worth considering the role that theme plays in fiction.

When we place a book in a genre, that can suggest a certain theme by itself. We can presume that a literary novel, for example, will give us some insights into human nature. A mystery will be a search for truth. Science fiction will treat the promise or consequences of technology. A thriller will demonstrate the resourcefulness of the seemingly overmatched hero. Et cetera.

But most successful novels, I think, have a central theme that transcends category. This may seem obvious when discussing literary fiction, but it is also true for most so-called “category” fiction. In all cases, the theme may be pre-ordained by the original intention of the author, it may flow logically from the overall subject matter, or it may arise on its own as a byproduct of the author’s efforts to lend depth to the story.

My serialized novel, Cadaver Blues, is a fairly mainstream mystery. As such, it contains the obvious theme of truth seeking, but there is another element that arose as I plotted and wrote. The protagonist, Phu Goldberg, is a Vietnamese-American who was adopted as an infant by Jewish socialists. His face looks foreign to some, but his accent is American. In addition, he is short, which further exacerbates his self-consciousness.

With all these things in the stew, the underlying theme of prejudice arose naturally, and here’s the kicker: Phu himself is prejudiced. He assumes a couple of black kids are thugs, he believes overweight people have brought all their problems on themselves, and he accepts too easily that his beautiful female client must be stupid. Although Phu is not the only one in the story who is prejudiced, these views inhibit his ability to solve the mystery. As he sheds them (subtly, I hope), things begin to come clearer.

In any case, this theme of prejudice arises from the character of Phu. Prejudice is only central to the story because it is central to Phu’s character.

By contrast, the main theme of Primacy, my just-released thriller, arises from the subject matter of the story. The main action involves a talking ape that shows up in an animal testing laboratory. Her presence forces each character to confront the question of whether individuals should be sacrificed to the greater good. How they deal with this question reveals their inner character, of course, but the theme does even more than that for the reader.

Theme in fiction stimulates readers — consciously or subconsciously — not only to understand the protagonist’s character but to examine their own character. How would I act if I were Phu and two black teens crowded me on the sidewalk? What would I do if a “lesser” life were in danger because of choices that I’d made? Thus does theme lend resonance to one’s reading experience.

My new novel regards ordinary people suffering the consequences of the actions taken by a few powerful Wall Street players. As such, it will undoubtedly be categorized as a “financial thriller,” leading to the presumptive theme of an individual fighting great odds with money on the line.

Might it have another, deeper theme? I certainly hope so. Perhaps that theme will grow from the personality of Shoog Clay, the central character, or maybe it will grow from the thrust of the story. One thing I can promise already: This book will be about more than dollars and cents.