The concept of theme alluded me for years. I’d read various articles, listen to graduate school classmates deliberate and professors pontificate, but still not “get” it.
A story entertains readers, gives them a chance to escape the everyday. It can teach a lesson, too, I suppose–rather like parables: “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” But isn’t theme something readers interpret for themselves? I couldn’t correlate the characters with the writer’s intent. Characters are supposed to be their own entities, moving about the stage the writer creates. Writers create people, not marionettes. If I want to see stringed creatures tugged about and opening their mouths for voices projected from behind a curtain, I’ll attend a puppet show, not read a book.
Yeah, no. I was pretty wrong about that. About theme, I mean. But I didn’t really understand how wrong until a few days ago.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve taken on a Middle Grade fantasy based in Michael Dellert’s Matter in Manred series. The characters and setting were not mine at the outset: I guess you could say I adopted them. I love them like my own, and while they certainly piss me off some days, I refuse to give up on them. They’ve even made me brave enough to share freewrites and scenes on Facebook.
The latest scene I shared on Facebook was a dinner gone horribly awry. The protagonist’s parents have invited another family to dinner in hopes of acquiring a suitor for the protagonist, Gwen. The scene ends in a debacle, of course. Awesome. Great.
Well, I knew I had left the progatonist’s mentor in a hot-temper; she wouldn’t wait to make her feelings known. I’ll have her show up and get things moving.
Life got muddled for a bit after that.
Gwen didn’t know who overturned which chair first, or whose cup flipped across the table, or how Murtagh and Nutty got barred from leaving when Demmán came in with warm water and cloths for cleaning. But you better believe that when the door broke open to a stormy gust of stink and Fiachna’s whine of, “I’m sorry my lords she made meeee!” everyone stopped to look.
Terrwyn’s iron leg reflected the fire. Fists at hips. Braids half-kept in leather strips. Raindrops fled away from her face and down her leather coat.
Eyes over all. Even Nutty looked down and away when that glare was on.
Gwen wanted to hide under the table. Somehow this was all her fault. She didn’t get to her home when Terrwyn said, and now everything was wrong, and Terrwyn was mad, and—
“My lord, is it not time to visit your family’s shrine?” She spoke with such a polite calm that even the visitor-mother felt it acceptable to sit while Demmán cleaned her up. Her eyes, however, shone with the white-hot heat of a forge.
Lord Aillil brushed the remains of his dinner of his tunic. “Ah.” He coughed. Raised his eyebrows at his friend, who nodded in kind. “Yes, you are right. Muirgius, you will pray with me later. Please tend to our guests while I escort your sisters and mother.”
“But it’s my ancestor—“
“Since your…duties…prevented you from tending the gate, you can pay your proper honors now.”
Muirgius dropped the half-squashed apple cake, defeated. Gwen struggled not to smirk as she walked out to him stammering, “So, ah, a good walk? Oh yes, you rode. That carriage must have cost…”
The moment their other house-servant Iarél closed the door behind them Saffir hissed, “What duties?”
“Damned if I know,” Aillil halted himself time and again to keep behind Terrwyn. No one went near Terrwyn for fear of getting her bellows going again. “Iarél lost him by the mill. He wasn’t bothering Aberfa, as far as Pyrs knows.”
Nutty walked by Gwen, face pinched at everything she laid her eyes on. “I thought you weren’t the trickster with the flies.”
Gwen said nothing. She knew better…especially when Terrwyn’s leg swung so with that angry gait.
“It certainly explains where the miller children get it from. The whole lot’s dumber than a sack of seed. Dumber than Aberfa.”
Gwen grabbed Nutty, made her eyes bulge out at the sight of soot on her pretty dress. She cocked a fist ready to take out a few pretty teeth but—
“Aberfa knows better than to insult her peers over nothing.” Terrwyn stood, cane between her legs, at the altar. Gwen looked for her mountain-land: it had turned in upon itself, and continued to turn, slow, like a spinning wheel transforming cloud to the thread of lightning…
Saffir stood some feet away, at the shrine’s outer edge. Her muslin, stained with grease and wine, fluttered about her spotted face. “Mind your tongue, Neued.”
“But since when do we go to the shrine? This belongs to Muirgius’ mum, not us.”
“Since I needed to remind you that this suitor was for your sister. Not. You.” Saffir pulled a ring off Neued’s finger and put it on her own. “You cannot marry before her. I trusted you with one thing: to get Gwenwledyr ready while I tended the dinner. And what do I see? You dressed in her clothes.”
Soot, grease, dirt, hay. Somewhere under all this lay a dress of some sort. Blue, maybe? Gwen honestly couldn’t remember, it’d been a few days. She had some boots with holes by the ankle and heel. Her hair thick and coarse as a hedge.
This wasn’t the kind of body to go in a dress like that. She wasn’t the person. The thought made Gwen feel sick all over again. Even Nutty’s swelling tears did nothing to make her feel better.
“She’s not my real sister, and he’s not my real father.”
Gwen never thought she’d seen Saffir get color in her cheeks before.
“Neued. That is enough.”
A rumble from above, and from Lord Aillil.
Terrwyn remained still as a lone fly buzzed into their circle.
Lord Aillil caught it, crushed it. “Go back with your mother. And remember her words. Well.”
Neued stomped off past her mom. Saffir’s gaze shifted as Lord Aillil wipe the fly on the grass. “Gwenwledyr…” She bit her lips, blinked away a rain drop. “Oh, if only you were a proper daughter!”
My face scrunched as I forced myself on, despite Biff screaming to “FIND the shiny truck! Find it, FIIIIIND IIIT!” and Bash grabbing at my coffee any chance he could, even after I made him his own cup. (Oh hush, he ain’t your kid.) Writing when the kids are around is always hard, but lately the boys have almost no patience when I’ve got the computer out. My stomach throws some acid into my throat every time I say, “No, you can’t sit in my lap. No, I can’t read a story. No, no no no…” But the logical part of me swallows it back down: One hour. You are allowed one FUCKING hour for YOU.
Time up, scene done.
I didn’t like it.
Kinda hated it.
I sent it to Michael with an “ugh. I don’t know. Gwen may as well not even be there.” Michael agreed: “Gwen’s lost in it.”
At first I blamed the scene itself: too many people, too much going on. I’m not a good enough writer to handle so many characters interacting at once. Even in a play, action and dialogue are limited among two to three at a time while others shift into the background. (Unless you’re into musicals and dance numbers, which I am not. At. All.) I didn’t like the guests being present for Terrwyn’s entry. I didn’t like Gwen being the only one NOT doing anything. I didn’t like how whiny step-sister Neued was. And the plot-drop about the suitor felt dumb.
Michael suggested a smashcut to the shrine, and to focus “on Gwen’s conflict.”
I shirked at the thought of a cut, but Michael was right: I wasn’t putting Gwen first. The protagonist of any story needs to be front and center. If she’s not physically in the front and center, then the other characters MAKE her the front and center. That’s why the dinner debacle felt right: she wasn’t participating, but she was the topic of conversation.
What was this story called? The Middler’s Pride.
What was missing? Gwen’s pride.
The dinner had cut her down; now she needed to cut back. But the story had to move forward, and that wasn’t going to happen until I established the relationships with her parents. From Gwen’s point of view, she’s treated like crap. She makes that clear within the first few pages, and the dinner debacle seems to prove it.
But pride does funny things to one’s perceptions, such as seeing how one’s treated by others. Back when I brainstormed this story out, I saw the arc being Gwen’s transformation: how her pride feels like an asset when all it’s been is a deceiver, and only when her pride is totally crushed does she find proper strength in herself and through others.
Huh. Well, what do you know: a theme.
But I didn’t want to pull the characters’ mouths with strings to make them say what I wanted them to say. I wanted to give them the chance to be themselves, so Gwen could naturally rise, fall, and rise again with this transformation.
This meant whatever happened after that dinner party needed to give her pride a chance to show as well as move the plot. Since her father’s the one that gets Gwen to Act II, why not him?
Not going back.
Not ever ever EVER.
Never mind the cold water, or the cloud mountains’ destruction above her as rain started again. Gwen wanted nothing to do with the manor or any other piece of Easavainn Mills. She’d rather stay in the river until the goddess Gasirad herself said otherwise.
Gwen swam against the current, its fingers clutching her dress, boots and hair. It pulled her down. Roared in her ears. But she always pulled harder, up to the surface, and down again. She swam this way around the thorp to the mill itself, where the water kept the wheels ever-turning. Then she’d stop, float downstream, and start again when the shrine came in sight.
On her third trip down stream, she caught scraps of Terrwyn’s tongue-thrashing:
“—only child DOING anything—“
“—talk to horses more—“
“—handing off like grain—“
“—BE a father for two bloody minutes—“
She wanted to look, she really, REALLY wanted to look, but no: Gwen kept her eyes to the water, to the feel of fish fighting past her, and pressed back. Every stroke felt like a question:
Why? Me? Why? Me? Why? Me?
New fingers, tighter and stronger and—formed! Fingers pulled her down she could SEE hands, and Gwen knew eyes of rainbow stared at her in waves of pitch-black hair, lips moving, but she didn’t understand—
Gwen kicked up, hard, harder, and threw herself out towards the small dock she and the baker’s dozen used for fishing. Fingers just grazed the splintered edge—
Pulled up. Out.
Lord Aillil held Gwen off the ground with hands as big as bear paws. His dark eyes gripped hers, his nostrils flaring.
Gwen dangled, caught sight of Terrwyn seated by the shrine, striking flint against her iron leg to light her pipe.
One heaving breath.
What to do?
Lord Aillil blinked, set her down. Gwen couldn’t remember the last time he’d held her, or even stood this close. “You always swim fully dressed?”
Gwen shrugged. Even shrugging hurt, but it beat talking.
He studied the river’s current while tucking fallen locks behind his ears. “Takes a warrior’s strength to swim like that.”
A flicker of linden leaf shone against Terrwyn’s face. Gwen thought of the hunting trips with her father and step-brother. Of her traps that worked, her successful spears. And how she was denied to continue once Muirgurgle became an adult because HE was the son. He was the one who was supposed to be the strong one. The warrior.
But talking was hard. It was always hard. So she said: “Yes, it does.”
Rain weighted Lord Aillil’s hair, pulling it back down in long, earthy strips. “What do you want, Gwenwledyr?”
Oh, the things that popped into her head…
The lost hunting trips.
The refusal of the family weapon, a spear imbued with magick from long ago.
The denied chances to sit on his knee.
The denied chances to leave the thorp with travelers who spoke to her more in one hour than her own father spoke to her in days.
“I want what’s mine.”
Lord Aillil started to shake his head.
“It’s all I have, and I want it. I want to answer the blood-feud.”
“Those people drove my mother out of her home, they killed her family. My mother’s spirit deserves justice.”
“It’s all I want! I don’t want a husband or land or title. I’m not asking you to give up your family. I’m not asking you to give anything.”
Gwen puffed herself up. She no longer shivered. Even her hands remained still. She survived the trickster in the deep. She survived pestilence and fire. She survived houseguests.
She was Gwenwledyr, and she would. Be. Heard.
Lord Aillil’s right hand twitched at his side. He lifted it, almost reached through the space between them…but scratched his beard instead. His eyes drifted from the nearby manor and stables towards the water, the forest. When he looked on her again, a strange glitter filled them—raindrops, perhaps. “Yes, you are.”
Of course. He thinks I’ll take a horse. Gwen readied herself to say otherwise, but the wind picked up, blowing old kindling for the shrine down the hill. Some leaves and twigs fell upon them, others into the water, where colors sparkled underneath. Eye-shaped colors.
“Come inside. It is late, and the fire is warm.”
Gwen spat a leaf out of her mouth. “No.”
Lord Aillil bit his lip, smelled the air, and shook his head. He couldn’t even look at her, cleaning his eyes as he turned away. The moment his foot touched Easavainn earth, his gait and posture returned. A coin sang and sparkled as he flicked it through the air to Terrwyn, who caught it with ease. The moment he reached the hilltop Terrwyn called to Gwen: “Come along. I’m cold and tired. So are you.”
Gwen was. By gods, she was. Everything felt heavy, in and out. The coin still smarted. “So he’s paying you to keep me now, is he?”
Terrwyn puffed as she hobbled. “No.” The thorp center opened beneath them: a circle of lamplights and hearth-fires. The smell of warmed cider and bread set Gwen’s stomach roaring for its supper. “I merely wagered you’d refuse.”
Lord Aillil’s the biological parent, so it makes sense for him to be the first to interact with her after the dinner debacle. Plus, he’s the one Gwen’s mentor Terrwyn would ream out (being a former soldier herself), which allows her anger from before the dinner to come back into play.
I also wanted readers to have a chance to see Gwen alone with her father. All they’ve heard and seen is his formal self, his pride-filled self. Sound familiar? That’s when I knew Gwen needed to look a lot like her father rather than the dead mother. They mirror each other more than they know, and in this scene, I think Lord Aillil finally realizes it. This spurs him to petition the king to enlist Gwen in the Shield Maidens, and help her become the warrior she thinks she already is.
The idea of Gwen swimming just to swim, just to prove she could, felt like the right show of pride: it’s a solitary task, one no one can really interrupt…except a goddess. Yeah, that bit excited me when I thought of it: the river goddess comes to Gwen for help to begin Act III. Why not have her first appearance here and now?
Yes, letting the scene be just Gwen and her father made me remove the stepmom and stepsister. Not a fan of that at first, but when this one-on-one with the father worked, it seemed only right Gwen be the center of a scene with her stepmom, too. I didn’t want Saffir to fit the “evil stepmom” stereotype. I wanted her to apologize and reach out to Gwen in her own way. Nutty/Neued already had her establishing scene with Gwen; we don’t need another one. A one-on-one with Saffir could finish establishing the “normal” life in their society before Gwen is exposed to something totally new. It would also give Gwen a chance to buck, shut down, and cover herself in pride yet again.
Theme itself really does have pride of place in the elements of story. All the choices we make about the setting, the characters, all that happens or does not, hinges upon theme. It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.