Know Your Novel’s Theme Before You Pick Up the Pen
Guest Post by Irene Watson
Whether writing a realistic or fantasy novel, the novelist is creating a fictional world where he or she is playing God, and that requires creating a worldview or philosophy and basic rules to govern that fictional world. Writers must know what their philosophy is and what worldview they will sell to their readers in order to create effective, convincing fiction.
Writing fiction requires vision, and the novelist does more than tell a story—he or she creates a world that needs to function under the author’s vision. A novelist plays God, creating a worldview—how the world works. Before starting to write, the novelist should determine what the theme, philosophy, or worldview of the work will be. Making that determination is setting a foundation that will guide the novel so the beginning will progress logically to the conclusion and convey the book’s message or theme.
I can already hear your objections. “But I’m writing a romance novel or a horror novel, not some deep, heavy literary story!” Even so, your story will be operating within the worldview that you, the author, create for it. You need to decide whether, despite the fact that it’s all fiction, you are writing realistic fiction or fantasy, or perhaps some blend of the two. For example, do you believe in ghosts? If you think ghosts are real, you might be writing a paranormal romance where ghosts can happen in a believable manner. Your “realistic” paranormal romance must then be written so it is believable. How about your romance novel—do you believe in a benevolent universe where everything works out for the best, or do you believe life is nasty, brutish, and short? The difference in that viewpoint will determine whether you have a happy ending as in “Cinderella” or a tragedy like “Romeo and Juliet.”
Too often, writers claim ideas just come to them; their writing is spontaneous, even mystical, they are inspired, and the story just goes where it will. Yes, there is an element to that in writing, but good writing needs to occur within a clear set of goals and values so your book has a point. Even if you feel life has no point, that in itself may be your point.
Think about it. What is the worldview of your fictional world? What is permissible, and how does the universe operate? What rules, in your opinion, govern the real world or your fictional world? If you’re writing realistic fiction, will God play any role in your novel? Some readers will think God is fictional, while others will think He’s part of reality. Which viewpoint will you promote in your book, and what kind of God? If you’re writing fantasy, what rules govern the use of magic in that world? If you’re writing horror, what are the rules that govern how zombies or vampires or werewolves are created, or why they are allowed to exist? Is your world controlled by evil forces because vampires exist within it, or does a benevolent God have a place in the universe for vampires?
What theme or viewpoint do you want to express? That love conquers all? That discrimination against gay people is wrong? That we are all the victims of our family environment? That we attract into our lives what we want to have happen? That reincarnation is true? That humans are the playtoys of aliens who created the world and are keeping us here like their personal pets? That God does not care, which is why a nuclear war has left your characters living in an apocalyptic world?
Perhaps what it all boils down to is: What is the meaning of life (from your novel’s perspective), and how are you going to convey that meaning to your readers? Even if your book never addresses these issues, you are creating a sense of that message in your novel—certain rules or beliefs will be implied in your writing. Does your murder mystery show that there is no real justice in the world and evil is uncontrollable, or does it show that people ultimately must pay for their crimes? Does it show that in some cases, murder is acceptable?
While you do not need to limit yourself to specific boundaries, finding your voice as a novelist may have a lot to do with understanding what you believe, stand for, and what you want to express. Consider the following literary schools or movements. Ask yourself which one you or your specific novel might belong to, and where you agree or disagree with different schools. Please note that I have simplified the definitions and that other schools exist. Continue to explore literary philosophies on your own.
Romanticism – (Not to be confused with romance). An emphasis on the imagination and how human emotions and imagination can change or alter people. Often an emphasis on the greatness of man, and looking, not at what is, but what man can be. A proponent of self-esteem. Romantic novelists include Victor Hugo, Sir Walter Scott, and Ayn Rand.
Christian – Christian literature promotes the beliefs of Christianity and generally is intended to reveal or strengthen for the reader a belief in Jesus as the savior, in God’s love, or a better understanding of a Christian mystery such as the Resurrection. Most Western literature is influenced by the Christian worldview and either operates within it, or in the case of existentialism and some other schools, operates as a response or in opposition to it. Similarly, your worldview could be based in another religious viewpoint such as Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, atheism, or pantheism. Christian novelists include C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and Lew Wallace.
Realism – The purpose is to depict the “real” world. Realism does not introduce the supernatural and stays away from unusual or unlikely situations such as winning the lottery. Usually, these are stories of everyday people and their experiences with logical consequences resulting from situations they find themselves in. Realism also tends to explore the darker sides of reality, such as war, unhappiness, adultery. Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy are realist novelists.
Naturalism – Similar to realism, but also experimental. The novelist views his characters like laboratory experiments. For example, if we take a character (short, weak, and old) and place him in a given situation (in a plane wreck so he must survive on a desert island) what is likely to happen to him? Emile Zola, Stephen Crane, and Kate Chopin are examples of naturalists.
Existentialism – Life has no meaning. There is no God. We have no hope for the future. What is left perhaps is that we make our own meaning. Well known novelists of this movement are Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett.
Postmodernism – Literature is largely a game where the fictional veil is see-through. The narrator will intrude, destroying the façade of fiction to speak to the audience. Lots of irony and word play. Often the purpose is to reveal information about something non-fiction, with copious footnotes to back up the fictional portrayal to show how close the story is to reality. Vladimir Nabokov is an example. James Joyce (often considered part of Modernism, the movement this movement grew out of to some extent) also fits here.
Beyond what you consider your literary school and worldview, what is the worldview of your characters? Do you believe the world is governed by a just and good God, but your main character is an atheist who believes in existentialism? How is his worldview going to operate within your novel’s larger worldview? Will your atheist character end up converted to Christianity? What about a Romantic character who believes in the basic good of people and that the world can be made a better place, but you find his viewpoints laughable and want to make fun of him—then are you writing a postmodern novel? How about a Christian character in a naturalist novel? If you take a fundamentalist Christian and place him in a Muslim city, what will be the natural result?
Knowing your worldview as a novelist, as well as that of your characters, will help you figure out the message of your novel and how to present it to your readers, as well as allowing your readers to know what your point is. Too often lately, books and movies no longer seem to have much of a point and that is due to lack of a clear foundation because their writers did not consider what the worldview of the work would be. While fiction’s first purpose may be to entertain, when a story has no point, it is not entertaining but simply confusing and frustrating. Give your readers something to think about, something to mull over, a viewpoint or philosophy to consider and you will leave a memorable and lasting impression on them.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.