“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)
It’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 substantial 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 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?