Variations on a Theme

Have you heard the old adage – everybody has a book in them – and then worried you might only have the one in you?  I must admit I’ve had a few self-doubt wobbles around this area in the past.   But when I had a good look at the writers I most enjoy and admire, I realised there is a big difference between telling the same old story over and over and being able to find new and exciting ways to explore a theme or character.

Artists and musicians, since time began, have mined lucrative veins of creativity until every last variation has been wrung out.  Think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Water Lilies.  The world would be a poorer place if they hadn’t worked out all aspects of their vision.  Some pictures might be more compelling than others, but their bodies of work highlight subtleties and techniques that leave the art world and audience all the richer.

One of my favourite writers is Carol Goodman.  Her stand-alone novels tend to deal with single women either making a new start in life, or returning to a place where something significant happened to them.  Her protagonists all have a literary or artistic bent; all deal with a life-altering event from the past that has never been resolved; and often the story is tied to a parallel myth or legend.  There may be an identifiable pattern to her books, but I have loved all of them for the key reason that I know she will not deliver the whole picture until the end.  Her stories are familiar, but not the same.

Stories about the same characters can be a readers greatest pleasure when the author gets it right.  Who doesn’t like catching up with an old friend?  J.K. Rowling did a great job of growing her characters up at the same rate as her target audience (and many others who’d already been through that phase enjoyed it too).   But Lucy Maud Montgomery went one step further and brought us the life of Anne of Green Gables from childhood right through to middle age.  I was a huge fan and enjoyed following Anne, but if I’m honest the later books never quite achieved the magical heights of the first few. In Montgomery’s case, I’m glad she wrote the whole series – but there have been times when even I have given up on a once beloved character.

I was once a big fan of an unnamed fantasy series.  I won’t name the series because I have the hugest respect for the author, and count some of his books among the best I ever read.  But there came a time when I’d just had enough.  There were too many black spots, the main characters were apart too long, and I started to wonder if it was ever going to reach a resolution.  I later read an article where the author said his readers expected this world and these characters from him.  If that’s where his writing heart is – I wish him all the best.  But as I reader I’d lost faith in characters I’d once loved.

In my opinion it comes down to character arc.  If the character is growing (or regressing) in some way shape or form, the series can last as long as the author has good ideas.  Nora Roberts (writing as J.D. Robb) has written over 30 books in the ‘in Death’ series.  Yet I still enjoy getting stuck into the world of Eve Dallas because of the ever-strengthening relationships between the core characters.  It helps that each novel is focused on a different homicide so the character development is the secondary focus and occurs slowly. But even after all these books I still care about the characters because they are very much alive and moving forward with their lives.

It’s a wonderful thing to explore a favourite theme, but it’s good to push your boundaries too.  Another of my favourite books is one of C.S. Lewis’s lesser known works, Till We Have Faces, which was for adult readers and based on the Cupid and Psyche legend.  It’s a gritty read and very different from the Narnia series, and yet it’s still very much a recognisable piece of Lewis’s work.  He certainly didn’t feel the need to stick to one genre, and we shouldn’t either.

I read a wide range of books, and although I’d describe myself as a writer of fantasy, I also have a literary novel and a light romance loosely outlined for another day.  Whether they ever get written, the process of exploring new premises, or looking at the world through the eyes of a new character helps me to understand my core themes better.  So perhaps the key isn’t just the character arc, but the ability of the author to keep growing too. They say there is nothing new under the sun, but there are endless variations on a theme. So I’m keeping my eyes and mind open, and hope I can always look at the world with a healthy dose of curiousity.

How about you?  Do you have a favourite theme or world you like to write around?  What is it about your favourite author that keeps drawing you back to their novels?


6 thoughts on “Variations on a Theme

  1. My interest is in writing different fictional stories but I keep hearing that readers want more of something if they like the first (of a series). I can envision a sequel only because, in my particular novel, there is a good possibility of adding on to the original idea. But a series of my stories? No! There are too many other interesting tales to tell. Here is my however: I also read that it is very difficult to write about a totally different subject because you are more or less expected to keep to one area. You’ll also need another agent, another publisher, etc. In my case, in addition to a few other fiction books I have several nonfiction projects. In fact, had I stayed with nonfiction I have, right now, publishers interested in 3-4 possible books. The allure of getting my first novel published was too much so I shelved the nonfiction (when I had a publisher) in favor of my fiction project (when I did not have a publisher) Maybe I ought to write a new book on career death wishes or suicides.I understand this article’s idea that you can be varied in one area but in practicality, it’s more rare I would think, than common.

    1. Greg, I understand your frustration. I think the hardest part of writing is balancing reader / industry expectations with your own passion. It’s great you already have interest in the non-fiction books, but I ‘get’ the pull of publishing a novel. Best of luck with your writing journey.

  2. I love the ‘In Death…’ series by J.D. Rob. The characters have grown and developed, leaving me satisfied at the end of each book. Patricia Briggs does the same thing for me. A specific world with differing POV’s.

    I love to write the ‘what if’ of situations. I like to explore possibilities and then push them past perceived limits. It gets me out of my daily doldrums. 🙂

  3. Over the years, I have come to realise that, although the stories I write always seem very different at first glance (some are dystopian, some are contemporary, some are science-fiction, the latest are epic fantasy), they all have the same themes. I guess we tend to write about what we care about, even in different settings.

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