Ever find yourself wondering why you’re writing a particular story? Out of all the myriad tales out there, why do certain themes seem to pop up in your fiction more often than others? Why, when you analyze the themes you gravitate to, do they bear a startling similarity? Maybe you find yourself writing about the struggle of an outsider looking for the place to belong, or a woman forced to choose between relationships and a career, or a man learning how to forgive a terrible wrong. Why that theme and not another?
It may be that something in your own psyche is unwittingly bubbling up.
Years ago I trained as a counseling psychologist and the lessons I learned back then have often come in handy in helping me recognize patterns in my writing which dovetail with themes from my own life. For example, my debut novel, Truth and Other Lies, has a strong through-line of a 25-year old woman whose relationship with her over-protective mother is a contentious one. So she’s drawn to an older woman in her own profession who seems to embody the person she wants to be when she “grows up.” This conflict between a mentor and a mother in terms of their life choices fuels the plot line but also resonates with my own life. I remember searching in my twenties among teachers, co-workers and older relatives for someone I could pattern my life after. I was determined not to become my mother (who was a wife and mom but never held a job outside the home, read a book, or even learned to drive until she was in her forties).
I knew this had once been a hot button for me so It didn’t surprise me to see the theme emerge in my first book. But when I began my second, there it was again! I created a 17-year old daughter also pulling against her mother’s values and looking to an outsider, an artistic bohemian, to serve as a role model. Despite my best intentions, I’d gone back to the same theme, a sure sign I hadn’t yet resolved the issue and still felt the need to explore it through my fiction.
Let’s take a couple of famous examples and do a little armchair analysis. It’s not difficult to see that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s theme of an aspirational but poor suitor rejected by a wealthy debutante in The Great Gatsby in many ways mirrored the experience the author had when he was initially rejected by Zelda Sayre’s family because of his inferior status as a struggling writer. Likewise, Ernest Hemingway wrote book after book that reflected disillusionment with war and his grappling with the concept of toxic masculinity and we see that reflected in his own tragic family history.
So next time a beta reader or an agent or publisher tells you that you need to go deeper, develop the inner thoughts and reactions of your character’s more, you might consider whether you’ve been afraid to probe into more sensitive areas because they mirror your own. Does your character think about leaving her husband and starting over in another city but hesitate to do it? Perhaps this is something you have thought about doing and it scares you to explore the possibility. Or you made that move and it’s painful to relive the consequences which resulted from that decision. Perhaps your story is about a woman finding the courage to challenge a wrong in the workplace. Is that an action you’ve been too timid to do, not sure you’re up to seeing what would happen if you tried it?
Oftentimes readers can sense when we as writers are holding back and avoiding particular subjects. They don’t know exactly what’s wrong but they sense the decisions characters are making don’t ring true. So pay attention when you hear comments from reviewers like “I can’t see him acting this way” or “this decision doesn’t make any sense.” You may be playing it safe with your protagonist or antagonist because of hidden psychological issues of your own. Instead of writing raw inner thoughts, authentic and realistic dialogue, and having your character’s make difficult and soul-wrenching decisions, you’ve chosen to skate over the surface, never letting yourself examine the real fear behind your character’s, and perhaps your own, façade.
Next time you do a revision, instead of looking for more elegant ways to turn a phrase or spending hours working on a plot twist, give some thought to digging deeper into WHY this particular story is so urgent for you to tell, why this particular theme haunts you when you’re lying in bed, why you gravitate to movies and books centered around this subject matter. See if you can identify an experience, a challenge, a relationship in your own background which has become buried in your psyche and is driving you to write the stories you do. If you do the work to identify the WHY behind your writing, you may open up a path into your character’s motivation you never explored because it too closely mirrored your own.
You can’t be hesitant or stingy or surface. This type of honest revelation requires you to first access your strongest desires, your deep-seated fears, your childhood traumas, your adult longings, and then to be honest and true in putting down on paper what you uncover for all the world to see.
It requires the strongest kind of courage. But that’s the true task of the novelist. And that’s the job you signed up for.