Yesterday, sometime between editing the story on feral pig contraception (don't ask) and meeting with my weekly crit group, I spent some time thinking about themes in fiction--not plot, but the deeper, underarching core values of a story's characters and their motivations.
I read an article a year or so ago that authors tend to return, consciously or unconsciously, to the same themes in their work. That inside each of us, buried deeply perhaps, are a set of core beliefs that find their way into our writing whether or not we do it consciously. Think of it as the moral of our story--and even genre fiction has a moral somewhere underneath the exploding zombies and high-tech spaceships. Our job is not to preach that moral, but to show it at work in our plots and characters. And it's there whether we consciously put it there or not.
I don't have a huge body of work to examine, but when I looked at my first two novels, digging beneath the layers of plot and language and structure, sure enough, there were my themes. They'd popped up into two books without my even being aware of them. So when I began writing my third book, I determined my themes consciously and was amazed how it helped shape the decisions of my characters and the events as they unfolded.
There probably aren't a huge number of themes--there's an infinite number of ways the same basic ideas can be interpreted by different writers. Common themes include appearance vs. reality; the search for personal identity; the meaning of home.
In my work, apparently, the themes that came out unintentionally were 1) That family has nothing to do with blood ties or DNA; 2) That love and friendship can come from the unlikeliest places; 3) That life will always let you down; it's what you do with the disappointment that determines the fiber of your character. Damn. Where did those come from? Deep inside, because they are things that, at my core, I believe.
In the third book, armed with what are my apparent internal themes, I looked at my characters and realized there was a fourth theme I wanted to present: that sometimes we can't find happiness by following the course dictated by societal norms or expectations. Sometimes, we only find happiness by letting go of all the expectations and leaving ourselves open to whatever life brings us. Knowing that this was the lesson I wanted my characters to come away with helped shape the story as I went along. I'll never again start writing a story without some idea as to what theme I want that story to tell. Well, except maybe for this year's NANOWRIMO project :-)
What are the themes behind your books or some of the favorites you've read?