Ambushed by Theme

“Starting with thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story…  But once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions. To do less is to rob your work (and eventually your readers) of the vision that makes each tale you write uniquely your own.” ~Stephen King (from On Writing)

A Slave Market in Rome, Jean-Leon GeromeIt’s Just a Simple Story: That’s what I kept telling myself and others while I worked on what became my epic fantasy trilogy. I started with a young man who is an heir to his clan’s chieftainship, and a young warrior-woman assigned to be his guardian. I kept reminding myself I was just telling their simple story, through the next six or so years and six hundred plus thousand words of prose. Um, yeah, it sort of spiraled on me.

But I honestly always considered the story simple, and rooted in the characters. I only stopped when I felt I’d told their story. Only in hindsight can I see the themes that arose in the telling. And, in the spirit of the trilogy’s epic length and breadth, quite a few themes did indeed arise. I suppose the most central and overarching one would be the importance of embracing one’s own freewill over an externally imposed fate, as I explored here.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” ~ Flannery O’Connor

Reading back over the trilogy and thinking long and hard about what was bestowed upon me in the process, I’ve come to realize I’ve been ambushed by my muse. I set out with no intentions of addressing thematic concerns or to make any statements on societal issues. But no few such issues and concerns arose in spite of my intentions. In hindsight I see: racism, sexism, militarism, the imposition of religious dogma, obligation to family, and duty to community versus self-determination, to name a few. As an example of one of the totally unanticipated issues that my muse sprang on me, I give you slavery.

Muse-Induced Enthrallment: When I set out, I knew the ancient Roman Empire would play a substantialKirk Douglas as Spartacus role in the story. And I was also aware that Romans kept slaves. I mean, I have seen Spartacus. But I hadn’t thought too much more about it.

Very early in the plotting phase of my trilogy, I was looking for a reason for my protagonist’s father’s clan members and followers to have been kept completely separated from him through his childhood. An idea struck me: they had been defeated by the Romans, and were enslaved, as the conquered often were. It seemed so natural. Such a simple little layer to my simple little story. Oh, you sly muse. But, slave to her will that I am, I shrugged and added it to the storyline.

Little did I know that by book three, I would be featuring the POV of a Germanic slave-boy. Or that I would have a former slave reevaluating everything about his goals and motivations after seeing the slaves beneath him in a new light. Or that I would feature a highborn Roman, utterly accustomed to being constantly surrounded by slaves, come to question slavery because of newfound emotions instilled by a new slave in her service. By the end of the trilogy, the story is heavily entangled in the issue of slavery.

History’s Dirty Little Secret: Although it’s not really a secret if you look at the record, slavery was little more than a footnote in my school history lessons on, “The light of the A Roman Slave Market, by Jean-Leon Gerome (1884)western world,” as St. Jerome called the empire. By the time slavery reached its peak in the fourth century, slaves made up one third of the empire’s population, and over 40% of the city of Rome itself. Keep in mind, at this time Rome’s population was around one million (that’s 400,000 slaves, for those who haven’t had enough coffee to do the math).

Regarding the Goths, the subjects of my story, I’ve seen estimates of as many as 40,000 Gothic slaves being held in the Roman homeland by the start of the fifth century. Keep in mind, Constantine changed the official religion of the empire to Christianity in 313, and the Goth Ulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic and successfully converted the majority of Goths to Arian Christianity in the mid-300s. By the year 400, these were, for the most part, Christians keeping Christians as chattel.

“Beautiful writing is more than pretty prose. It creates resonance in readers’ minds with parallels, reversals, and symbols. It conjures a story world that is unique, highly detailed, and brought alive by the characters who dwell there. It offers moments of breath-catching surprise, heart-gripping insight, revelation, and self-understanding. It engages the reader’s mind with an urgent point, which we might call theme.” ~ Donald Maass (from Writing 21st Century Fiction)

Muse Gift: So although I say my muse ambushed me with themes, I consider her little surprises wonderful gifts. Slavery is one of the oldest and greatest crimes against humanity. It hadn’t been on my radar at the onset, but it became a prominent element in the goals, motivations, and conflicts of several of my major characters.

Although I do not lay claim to having achieved the “beautiful writing” Don refers to above, I aspire to it. Slavery became a vehicle to explore intense human emotions, such as shame, humiliation, elitism, compassion, love, hate, and vengefulness, to name a few. I’ve now viewed anew the destructive and subversive power of slavery, not just for the slaves, but for the slaveholders, and the slave-dependent society. As a theme, it offers detail, depth, and complexity to my story world.

Whether or not you believe they are muse bestowed, I know that seeking out and pondering the themes and symbols that arose in the process of storytelling continues to move me closer to achieving that depth of engagement with readers in Don’s quote. As a side-benefit, I continue to learn a lot about myself and what I think in the process. That’s a thematic win.

What surprises have you found in your work? Have you been ambushed by theme? How does it enrich your story? 

19 comments on “Ambushed by Theme

  1. deedetarsio says:

    Cool pics, Vaughn! Thanks for getting to the bottom of this . . . wait for it . . . That’s what she said! You and Steve (King) have it right, the muse brings such pretty clothes—sometimes outfits we never would have chosen for ourselves, right?


    • It does seem like the artist (Jean-Léon Gérôme) was a bit fixated on certain aspects of “Rome’s dirty little secret.” And you’re right; sometimes the muse even bestows utterly unique apparel like the sunshmina, right? Beats the heck out of a toga. Thanks, Dee!


  2. ddfalvo says:

    Wow. This is a big topic with deep roots– each feeder sustained by different motivations, all branching off the same inspiration.

    My kids and I used to play the original Sims game. The characters received attributes and a single Sim could not *be everything*. The finite structure had limited capacity, and no one attribute had value unless it dominated the scale. The key is, what do we, the creator, value? Writers do this with our novel characters, too. Our own ethics and morals color each personality based on what that character represents to us. Each is filtered through the hopes and dreams and desires we hold within ourselves, giving our stories depth beyond our original imaginings.

    The issue of slavery exists in so many forms from the obvious to the subtle even in our modern times. Obvious is the kidnapping of young woman sold into sex slavery, subtle is the emotional guilt tying one person to another in an unhealthy relationship. We can’t wave a magic wand and cure all of what ails the world, so we pound out our hopes on the keyboard instead. Whether our stories resolve themes that concern us or just create awareness, we are satisfying our own deep need for balance.

    Wonderful, thought-provoking post! Like so many of your others, I’ll probably spend the rest of the day pondering your wise words. 😀


    • Having never played it, I am now intrigued by The Sims. You are so right, how the archetypes we imbue into each character add to the shading and nuance of the overall story, and how it compounds upon itself as the work progresses.

      It’s funny how my own perception of slavery evolved as the story unfolded for me. I think you see my perspective-shift through the eyes of several characters as their arcs develop, too. Great observation on how applicable the issue of slavery is to today’s world, as well.

      Thanks for a thought-provoking addition to the conversation, D. I’m so very happy that the post resonated for you! I hope your return to the keyboard yields a bit of musely magic in the days to come, D!


  3. I love this, Vaughn. It also resonates with our world today where corporations could be compared to feudal systems, The worker (serfs/slaves) at the bottom with very little rights in this anti-union climate, the managers as lords or their own little departments (lands), the CEO as King. Your story may be set in the past but the theme is universal and timely.


    • So true, B. I didn’t realize the applicability until after I completed a draft, and I continue to further understand it as I move forward. Even writing this post and reading yours and D’s comments helps me to better grasp the concepts that can be exploited in future revision. Thanks so much for your astute observations, my friend!


  4. I think Gerome might have chosen his subject matter in part to play to his genius at depicting skin. I mean, you really can’t take your eyes off those luscious curves for more than a second, despite the tricks of adding brightly colored clothing as a minor distraction. Which is really my roundabout way of saying that I think we choose themes, or themes choose us, because we feel passionately about them and thus can bring them to life within our work. And to O’Connor’s point, sometimes we didn’t know how passionately we felt, until after we’d finished writing.


    • In spite of the eye-gripping aspect of Gerome’s slavegirl’s luscious curves, I think the thing that captured my attention, and made me believe these paintings were right for the post, is her utter vulnerability and obvious despair. For an instant, as with the Roman bidders, all we see (I should probably only speak for myself here) is the beauty and appeal of her form. But beyond that first instant, the horror of the situation sinks in. That matches up well with my themes.

      Great observation about finding the depths of our passion in the finished work. In some ways, revealing those depths to others can leave me feeling as vulnerable as the poor girl on the slaver’s selling block. Thanks for your inspiration and support, and for enhancing the conversation here, Rhiann.


  5. Ah, fantasy writing’s beauty is revealed when it allows difficult themes to slip in through the back door and then dominate the room. At first the paintings are erotic, then shameful, and finally I found myself wondering about each man in the crowd. Indifference? Disgust? Lust? Sympathy? Anger? When a character collides with an issue a story is born. When multiple characters collide with multiple issues a novel is born. Oh glorious day, for at that moment the whole becomes greater than the parts. Where history looked for one brief moment you dared to stare the monster in the eyes and then turned up the lights to expose it. Great post, Vaughn.


    • Another epic comment, Christina! I found myself reading the men’s faces, too. It’s a remarkable pair of paintings. I love your point about characters colliding with issues. Here’s to the whole becoming greater than the parts, for both of us! Thanks for reading and for your insight!


  6. lizl says:

    I think finding themes isn’t the work of a few days, a few months,or even a few years. It’s years and years of observations that may have been noticed not by the conscious brain, but by the unconscious. Writing allows us to work it out. (And I’m waxing philosophical because it’s way past my bedtime!)


    • Definitely the work of years for this humble fantasy writer. Part of the post came about because I’m seeking the various layers of theme. I know my trilogy has many thematic issues, but I’m still struggling with putting that living, breathing heart into book one. I want each book to have an impact; to make readers feel something. It’s like trying to find just the right screws to turn to bring my pixelating emotional picture into an HD one. But sometimes reaching for those barely-conscious thoughts is like fishing with your hands in murky water. (Have I offered enough metaphors for one comment? I think so. And I don’t even have the “past bedtime” excuse.)

      Thanks, Liz! Your philosophical waxing is always welcome here.


  7. M.L. Swift says:

    I didn’t realize that Brazilian waxes were popular in ancient Rome…learn something new every day.

    I’ve learned that if I set out writing with a theme in mind, I can easily become preachy and condescending, but when I let the story tell the story, the theme emerges beautifully on it’s own. It is only after its appearance that I’m able to nurture it to better enhance the overall picture and tale I want to convey.

    Very good post, Vaughn!


    • Actually, Gerome got it right. Bodily hair was considered repulsive to the Romans. The Roman poet Martial wrote a book of advice for court entertainers, and wrote: “Needless to say, you depilate your arms and legs–even your loins. Of course you already do this to please your lover, don’t you? Here, still others might have your smooth end in view.” I’m pretty sure slavers were savvy enough to make sure their product was as appealing as could be.

      Avoiding being preachy is a good thing, isn’t it, Mike? I’ve found this even in short pieces. Even in blog posts, where of course you begin with a point in mind. I try to make my points by, hopefully humbly, offering myself as an example. I’m very leery of “telling” another writer how anything should be done. I love your point about nurturing a theme from its earliest appearance. Wise choice of words, my friend.

      Very good comment, Mike. 😉 Seriously, thanks for reading and enhancing the conversation! 🙂


  8. Nicole L. Bates says:

    I love the opening quote, and I have to admit that my story began as “just a story”. It wasn’t until one of the first readers gave me feedback and mentioned how she liked some of the themes I’d incorporated that I really began to give the underlying messages much thought. Now that it’s been through MANY revisions, I think those themes are clearer to me and I’ve worked with those bigger messages in mind.

    You make an excellent point about the destructive power of slavery for all individuals, and the society as a whole. Great post, Vaughn!


    • I hear you on the “MANY revisions” thing. I agree, that’s when you start to hone in on them. I’m hoping that through this next round of revisions, I can zero in on my complex web of issues and sub-themes to combine into, as Don calls it, “…an urgent point, which we might call theme.” I’ve been thinking a lot about themes this week. I’m not sure I’m any closer to figuring it out. I may just have to throw myself into revision to grasp what I’m seeking (that’s usually the way it works for me).

      Thanks for weighing in, Nicole! I hope it’s as nice and sunny up there as it is down at this end of the lakeshore. Have a great weekend!


  9. As always, I love these insights into your trilogy and your writing process!


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