Choices and Themes

I’ve written before about symbolism, which can infuse and enrich a story.

Symbolism also reinforces Theme.

Themes are those underlying threads woven throughout a story that give it strength.

When we distill any story down to its themes, we often are surprised how *simple* those themes appear to be.  They don’t seem capable of supporting any story built around them.  But the nature of a good theme is that it’s all about hidden strength that comes out when it’s explored.  Many seemingly simple themes can be quite powerful.

Books often have multiple themes running through them – and often a theme may not even be apparent to the author, or a theme may be perceived by some readers and not others because of the way they identify with the story.

Choice is actually a very common theme that we see crop up in any number of stories.  Choice is extremely powerful because it can take so many different forms.  And its authenticity connects us to the characters we’re reading about, and experience their stories as they make choices we may or may not have ever considered.

Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat was an exploration of choice.  Lestat’s story was driven by the choices he made. And he remained unchanged and unbowing through the end:

I should have listened to Marius’s warning. I should have stopped for one moment to reflect on it as I stood on the edge of that grand and intoxicating experiment: to make a vampire of the “least of these.” I should have taken a deep breath.

But you know, it was like playing the violin for Akasha. I wanted to do it. I wanted to see what would happen, I mean, with a beautiful little girl like that!

Oh, Lestat, you deserve everything that ever happened to you. You’d better not die. You might actually go to hell.

But why was it that for purely selfish reasons, I didn’t listen to some of the advice given me? Why didn’t I learn from any of them – Gabrielle, Armand, Marius? But then, I never have listened to anyone, really. Somehow or other, I never can.

Just as Lestat was a victim of self-inflicted wounds by an incessant desire to make choices just to see what would happen, the character of Johnny Smith in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is haunted by his reluctance to make a choice.  King wove in the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale for a very good reason.  The reluctant hero of any story often knows that bravery may not always be rewarded, and that sacrifices may be called for rather than redemption.

Choice is what leads every person along the paths that unfold beneath our very feet.

We make countless choices in any given day – many quite inconsequential – shall I sit on the couch with a book or just step outside for a few moments to see what the sunshine inspires me to do today?

Some of our choices only seem inconsequential, and quite ordinary in the way we make them like we would any other.  We don’t get to see ahead of time what the consequences of our choices will really be further down the path.  We meet loved ones in our lives – friends and partners – when we’re drawn by common choices to be at a particular place at a particular time for sometimes no particular reason.  We discover new jobs and skills we never knew we possessed often because of natural and innocuous choices.

When I wrote Winter Fade, I was particularly conscious of choice and the role it played in the story. Choice becomes personified by the characters Imoen meets throughout the story and the different paths they offer if she were to follow one and not another.  And just as with any of us, sometimes choice becomes a product partly of other forces and not entirely of our free will.

Choice works best as an underlying theme when we’re given the intimacy of really knowing characters and understanding how they feel.  We want to empathize and experience the character’s conflict and desire and doubts or fears for ourselves.  We’re curious whether we would do as they chose – whether we would be either brave enough or foolish enough to follow such a path.  Or whether the choice wouldn’t be entirely ours alone and perhaps that path may have been inevitable in some unforeseen way.

As I mentioned early on, stories don’t need to rely upon a single theme and can often have multiple themes running through them – weaving around one another and strengthening the overall structure.

In Winter Fade, Imoen’s story came about through loneliness and self-imposed isolation that only forestalled choices that new circumstances and dangers force her to make, while confronting herself and discovering new friends and rebuilding a family.  Also – there is a pretty sizable body count 🙂

She ran absent fingers through her hair, exposing and hiding her face as another memory played behind closed eyes. She stood outside the door of her old apartment in Palms. She wondered to herself what had really kept her away all this time. Had it truly been Malcolm’s admonitions? Or had it been some wish of her own to make a break from her past, to find her way again even if it meant treading on uncertain ground? She listened for noises from within, but heard only the low hum of the refrigerator, a sound she had once become so tuned to that it no longer registered.

She tried her old key in the lock, not surprised when it no longer would open this doorway to her past. The lock’s new brass gleamed softly in the dull glow of the lamp outside the door. She knelt before it and retrieved her lockpicks. She began working methodically, and soon heard the final, solid click as the bolt opened. She rose and touched the doorknob slowly, reverently. The metal felt cool beneath her hand, but she imagined a warmth of homecoming after a long night away, a night that seemed to go on forever. She closed her eyes, and then opened the door and stepped inside, shutting the door softly behind her. She opened her eyes once more.

The apartment was bare. A new carpet lay rolled to one side of the living room, waiting to be laid down. Fresh white paint reflected the dim moonlight that entered through the blinds. She walked into her old bedroom, touching the door, the walls. She sank to her hands and knees, her senses overwhelmed by the new and unfamiliar smells as she explored the wood that had lain hidden beneath her old beige carpet, seeking out its memories.

At last, she stood up, her face a solemn cast in the moonlight. There is no going back. But I can always go forward.

A long sigh escaped her lips like a whisper lost in the wind, stirring the hair that hung before her face. 

Firefly Kiss deepens the exploration of choice by also delving into the nature of revenge from different perspectives, and whether the pursuit of whatever we believe to be justice is worth its cost, or is really what we want.  There’s also a lot of action 🙂

Toby sighed. “To a certain degree, I regret mentioning it to you and Ben.”

“You don’t regret not trying to stop me from going?”

He shook his head. “That was your free will, which I will not interfere with. The information I passed was of my free will. But I know you, and prudence would have dictated my silence.”

“Ben and I are glad you did, and there are four kids who are very thankful as well.” She touched his arm. “I don’t blame you for this, Toby. You shouldn’t blame yourself, either.”

“And you would do it again?” He studied her, waiting for her to answer.

She hesitated. “Yes.”

“Your newfound caution is welcome, even when there’s still certainty behind your choice. I have no problem with the latter where the former is engaged.”

“I know I’m not perfect, Toby.”

“Perfection is subjective, anyway. That’s why it’s unattainable.” He looked around the room. “Are you comfortable here?”

She hesitated again. “Yes.”

“You have to confront the past if you want to go on with your future. As a one time student of history, you would know that better than most.” His eyes lingered on the box resting on the floor beside the dresser. “Memories cloud our judgment sometimes, until we place them in proper perspective.”

She followed his gaze. “It feels like letting go.”

“No, it doesn’t.” He turned and looked at her again. “It feels like hurt because you relive it. That’s why you store them away. Memories are gifts, and sometimes they bring pain, but often they bring only what you ask of them. You should ask yourself why that is so.”

She bit at her lip and made herself stop. “Because I can’t choose the doors I want to open.”

“And sometimes you open a door and find your past has been erased, as you did last year when you visited the apartment you had as a human.” He inclined his head. “Were you relieved?”

She avoided his gaze. “I want to be more than a product of my past.”

“So you chose to turn your back on it.”

She lay silent for a while. “I have to move forward, Toby.”

“Sometimes you have to look back to move forward.”

She shook her head. “That’s not true.”

Toby sighed. “The biggest lies are the ones we convince ourselves are true.”

“This is the truth, as I see it.”

He paused, and nodded slowly, his eyes showing compassion. “Fair enough.”

She looked down again, sensing that he had chosen not to press the matter, not because he agreed, but because he had decided it wasn’t the time. 

Snowflake Promise explores the way we try to reconcile ourselves to the choices that brought us where we are, and whether we’re yet settled with the consequences.  Along with that is a strong theme of motherhood – from several different perspectives (plus action).

A light snow was falling. Imoen turned her face upward and stared in wonder at a flurry of snowflakes that swirled as though each had been granted its own life, bright gems chasing one another in and out of the bounds between darkness and light. They moved like restless stars that had spent too long in the heavens, and were now finding their way down to the comfort of earth.

She made a wish on one of them as she followed its slow and ballet-like descent, and wondered what promise such a delicate object of beauty might grant to her and those she loved. She breathed in the cold night air, different than that of her childhood home in Eugene, and even further distant from the moderate clime they had been in only several hours before.

She tugged her jacket unconsciously tighter around herself. Although she wasn’t bothered by the cold, it was a habit formed from the longer span of years she had spent as a human. She turned her head as she continued to stare upward, and experienced momentary vertigo. She had a sense of being surrounded by the neverending rows of buildings arrayed like dark sentinels and embodied with a teeming mass of humanity she couldn’t fathom. All around her was an overwhelming awareness of life that moved in patterns unfamiliar to her, a foreignness that heightened her sense of separation, of a watcher who was being watched.

Her vision blurred. She blinked away the tiny crystals captured by her lashes, and felt the soft tickle of melting snowflakes merge on her skin like fresh teardrops. Her mouth opened slightly, and she tasted a bitter crispness in the air. She blinked again, trying to make sense of this strange vastness she found herself within. She wondered what Jessie and Seth were doing.

She stepped off a curb, still gazing upward. A hand grasped her jacket suddenly, yanking her back just as a taxi roared past only a few feet away, a squealing of tires and buffet of wind the only announcement of its abrupt passage. She turned her head as Thaddeus released her.

He nodded toward the traffic signal, his face impassive. “We’d hate to lose you so soon.”

There was a snicker from one of Gavin’s bodyguards behind her, and she felt her face flush.

Peter raised his eyebrows and favored the bodyguard with an expression of feigned interest. “Got a problem?”

A lot of Kelley Armstrong’s work centers around choice – especially so since she writes character-driven stories.  Just glancing at some of the titles on my bookshelf:  Bitten is about choice (Elena choosing life within the pack and a future with Clay versus trying to integrate into the human world). Personal Demon is about choice (Hope choosing Karl and vice-versa, and no longer being afraid to accept that choice). Haunted is about choice  (Eve accepting that Kristof truly loves her and that more importantly she truly loves him, and that she chooses to share a life with him to the extent she can. There’s another theme of “letting go” that counterpoints her embrace of Kristof. She accepts that she must let go of her desire to oversee Savannah’s life and trust Paige and Lucas to handle it).

The reason choice works so well within stories is that it strengthens the ties between inner conflict of the character and the external conflicts the character must overcome.  Rarely are the two tied together in a direct fashion.  But just like in real life, we often allow the vanquishing of external challenges to help us gather the inner strength to finally confront the choices we’ve been uncertain about for so long.

3 thoughts on “Choices and Themes

  1. A great post Matthew, you’ve identified one of the cornerstones of character-centred fiction: how choice is handled within a story can alter the whole tone of the piece for the reader. Set up a relatively powerless character, swept along by events, constrained by their environment and by the choices of others and you have an ideal basis for a tragedy. Alternately, as you do in your stories, place the character at the centre of the story in such a way that their choices guide the plot and you promote reader involvement and a sense of empowerment which is ideal for action orientated writing.

    I agree that the way one aspect of a story is written impacts directly on the others. With careful and compatible choices the prose can become powerful and memorable. If the theme pulls in a different direction to style/genre for example, the story can seem ‘off’ for the reader, even if they can’t say why.

  2. Hi TJ – Thanks!

    I think it’s good for writers to be aware of the themes they’re writing about – whether writing around a theme deliberately or intuitively (either one works).

  3. Matthew, wow, as a new writer, this is a great post. I hate to say it’s something that while writing my little story, I hadn’t thought too much about – and suddenly I am. 🙂 You’ve made some really good points and made my brain work this morning, and I haven’t even had my coffee yet 😛 Thanks once again for opening my eyes to the hidden secrets of writing a good novel 🙂

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