Writing Themes: What do you want your books to say?

teal background with quote: if theme is the soul of a story, then characters are its beating heart by karen azinger

This isn’t really a craft post, more like a, “let’s dig into the messages of your writing and explore where they come from” post.

I listened to Lyz Kelley speak on Clubhouse the other night and she gave a really great talk on finding the messages in your stories and how you can build your brand and market your books off those themes.

Sometimes we don’t even recognize the themes we’re putting into our books until we go through our backlist and can pinpoint the themes and messages that have come up over and over again. Recognizing themes can help us when we have writer’s block and show us the way to new stories, plots, and character arcs.

Where do those themes come from?

Usually we put a little bit of ourselves into every one of our books. Our characters have our flaws and our dislikes and likes, or we give them stories that we wish we could have experienced in our own lives. When it comes to crafting characters we dig deep into our own emotional wells and create characters that are just as injured and damaged as we are. Sometimes they get a happy ending, such as if you’re writing romance, or sometimes they learn a life lesson that maybe you learn with them as they go along, like women’s fiction, or the hero’s journey in an epic fantasy.

What Lyz pointed out though, is that a lot of times our themes come from a trauma that we experienced, usually in our early teens. Unconsciously, that trauma pops up in our writing. When that happens frequently over the course of many books, you are finding the “why” of why you write. Not the generic why, such as you want to make readers happy or forget their problems for a while or give them a good beach read, but more of a deeper “why.” For example, for most of your life you’ve felt unloved and you want readers to know it’s possible to find love despite the odds.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Anyone who’s read my books knows that my characters have issues with their parents. They were abandoned, or their parents passed away when the character was small, or their parents are demanding and my characters scramble for parental approval. No matter what happened in the past with their parents, it affects who they are today, in their story. I write contemporary romance, so my characters’ relationships with their parents almost always affects their romantic relationships. Maybe if they were abandoned they don’t feel good enough to be loved, and that’s part of their character arc–learning they deserve love. Or they want approval and will do anything to get it, and that includes betraying their love interest or choosing their parent over the person they’re falling in love with.

teal background with quote: a very powerful theme is that of loss by alexander mccall smith

It’s easy to pinpoint my why: When I was fifteen I knew my parents weren’t going to make it. They fought all the time. I was an only child and my mother experienced severe empty nest syndrome. She went on to have two more kids (sisters I’m very close to despite our age differences), but that didn’t save their marriage. In fact, it made things worse, and because of this, I have never touched the “a baby will save our relationship” trope. My father started having an affair with a woman he met at church and my mother took my sisters and moved to Florida, where she was originally from. She was very angry when she asked me to move with her and I said no. I’d met the man who would become my husband and didn’t want to leave Minnesota. She didn’t talk to me for over a year.

Because of other reasons that I don’t need to get into here, I haven’t been on good terms with my dad for many many years and my mother passed away from breast cancer eleven years ago this month. To say I had a poor relationship with my parents is an understatement and that comes out in my writing.

I can use those themes in marketing and branding my work. When I was writing my 3rd person books, my tag line was “Find Home.” My characters didn’t feel like they had a home a lot of time because of their relationships with their parents–in their past and in their present–and when they fell in love, they found the acceptance and love they were looking for that didn’t come from their mom and/or dad. I still carry those themes with me while I’m writing my billionaire romances. In the story I’m writing now, my male character, Dominic, has a very sticky relationship with his parents. His mother has never loved him, and it’s part of the plot as he finds out why. Because he grew up without his mother’s love, he’s strived to earn his father’s all his life, even doing things that are against his moral compass because he knows his father will approve of them. Most of Dominic’s character arc is going to be realizing that his father’s love shouldn’t have to come at a price–and that price is the woman he’s falling in love with.

Knowing what kinds of themes and messages you use in your books can help you from repeating plots and backstories. Not every character is going to have mommy and daddy issues, and I need to make sure I explore other areas for my characters’ development.

When you’re struggling with finding your themes or messages you want to convey in your writing, take Lyz’s advice and think back to when you were younger and what happened that molded you into the person you are today.

teal background with quote: the feeling of being an outsider, an the identity theme, are hardwired into me. If there's anything really autobiographical in my fiction, it's that feeling. I always feel that way by dan chaon

It’s funny because depression hit me when I was about thirteen. Mental health awareness wasn’t as prevalent as it is today and my mom didn’t know where to go to get me help (okay fine; she didn’t even acknowledge I had a problem). I cut for ten years and tried to commit suicide three times. I say it’s funny because even though depression affected my life for many years, my characters do not struggle with depression. My relationships with my parents have more weight in my writing than my mental health. I wonder if it’s because I’m no longer depressed, yet I still feel guilty for the way I treated my mother and for not moving with her when she asked. I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I had moved with her and not stayed in Minnesota. I’ll never know, but I put that melancholy and wistfulness into my writing.

So when you’re looking for themes or messages that you want to convey, look at your childhood. Maybe you didn’t have friends and now all your characters grapple with a friendship issue: they struggle to keep friends or their “friends” betray them. Maybe you have a disability and an event shaped your life and now your characters share that same disability. In Lyz’s example, an author’s theme is all her characters are curvy and her tag line is “Curvy girls deserve love, too.” Maybe as a child one of her parents told her to lose weight, or a boyfriend broke up with her because she wasn’t skinny. Things have a way of simmering in the background and manifesting in our writing in ways we never thought possible.

What are your themes? Why do you write? What kind of messages do you want to send to your readers? That it’s okay to have a mental illness? That it’s okay to have one best friend than a hundred okay ones? That you don’t need your parents’ love to be a functioning human being and that you yourself can be a good parent despite how you were raised?

I find self-exploration fascinating, but it’s difficult for some to face the demons of their past. Especially if they still affect you right now. I think though, that the more self-awareness you have the deeper you can explore your characters wants, needs, motivations, and in turn recognize what their stakes and consequences and rewards are. And knowing what ties your characters together will help you brand your books and market them to the readers who will want to read those messages.

Do you have any reoccurring themes? Let know!

Until next time!

2 thoughts on “Writing Themes: What do you want your books to say?

  1. I never really thought about themes in my stories but now that you have me thinking, I would have to say loved ones abandonment. Leaving without considering the impact they’d have on others. In Broken Tomorrows, it was Parker. In my sisters novel, it was one of the sisters.

    Over the last few years I’ve had friends flip an imaginary switch and disappear from my life as if they never existed. Some, I’ve had to actually pause and think “did they really exist?”

    Good thought when it comes to brainstorming future stories. I’ll have to consider what theme I want my readers to grab from my stories to come.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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