Ideas in stories fascinate me, and one of the things that interests me most is the lack of consensus on what makes a good theme. I writeaboutthisa lot.
I’ve been trying to look at themes in stories from a different angle lately. Instead of just thinking about whether I agree with the moral of what I just watched or read, I’ve been thinking about how the idea was presented. Regardless of whether I consciously agreed, how did my heart react? Did the ideas seem well supported by the story, or were they awkwardly wedged in?
In the process, I’ve noticed three basic things that help a story’s theme not only sound true, but feel right.
1. Complexity. The story shouldn’t be populated by straw men. The utopia shouldn’t have gaps that the writer has conveniently overlooked. The world should feel multi-dimensional and complicated, just like the one we really live in. It’s seeing high-minded ideals interact with a messy world that makes stories so interesting. That’s the reason we forget the PSAs we saw in our teens but remember the gangster films.
2. Continuity. In music, the theme is an arrangement of notes that recurs throughout the piece. They tie the whole piece together. In a story, images, situations, phrases and dilemmas that occur over and over again create a sense of coherence. When, in the last fifteen minutes of a story, a character blurts out an aphorism and everyone nods at how profoundly it fits the moment, it feels clunky. We roll our eyes and think, “oh, right, they’ve gotta have a moral. Whatever.” But if that idea has come up before, and been examined by different characters from different angles, depending on their personality and what is going on at the time, the theme feels integrated with the story, not tacked on to check an item off a list.
3. Intersectionality. Contrary to the common idea that you need a single theme, stories are most interesting when they explore the overlap of a few values and ideas. The theme can’t just be love. What about love? That it conquers all? Well, you can’t literally have it conquer everything. The story has to end sometime. So maybe all in this case is represented by families who object because the two belong to different religious castes. Great! But now you’ve got a society with a religion and family obligations, and you’ve got to develop those things to flesh the story out. Now there are themes involving love, religion and family. The author might think its about love conquering all, but someone else could write a whole paper on how well it demonstrates religion stifling free expression of love.
These three aspects, complexity, continuity and intersectionality, combine to create a story that feels like its definitely about something, but still leaves the readers freedom to figure that out for themselves.
I should start by explaining that my parents never let us believe in Santa Claus. They were afraid that when they told us he wasn’t real, it would make us wondering if other mythological-sounding ideas might be questioned, like the entire Christian religion. It was a Nativity-only household. In retrospect, I still experienced the same story as my Santa-believer friends. We were both taught about a man who comes to bring wonderful gifts, but only if you’re very good and believe in him. Disbelief meant you were cynical and coldly logical, incapable of true joy and goodwill toward men. Disbelieving people like that are the whole reason the world sucks. If you don’t believe, it’s your own fault. Jesus/Santa loves you, and the fact that he won’t prove his existence but still will punish you for not living up to his standards in no way contradicts that.
Of course, the difference is that Santa is bringing toys that you want, but can live without, and kids aren’t actually expected to believe in Santa past early childhood. Still, I can’t shake the association. The parallels run too deep, and I have no nostalgia to fall back on. The first (and last) time I watched The Santa Clause with my boyfriend I think I ended up crying.
My other issue with Santa Claus movies is that the moral is usually that life is meaningless and depressing if fairy tales aren’t true. Unfortunately, once the credits roll we return to a world where they aren’t. The ultimate message of such stories is that if we aren’t delusional, we are nihilists.
The only Santa movie I can appreciate is The Miracle on 34th Street, because at least that way I can pretend there is no magic and Kris Kringle is just a high-functioning schizophrenic. Wait, wait, bear with me. That’s not as awful as it sounds.
For those who haven’t seen it (and you really should), Miracle on 34th Street is about a kindly old man, an old man, Kris Kringle, is hired as a last minute replacement to be Macy’s Santa Claus. He turns out to believe he really is Santa, Father Christmas, Sinterclaas, Saint Nicholas, the whole mythology wrapped into one person. The movie opens with Kris discovering that the man hired to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is intoxicated. He immediately finds the organizer, Doris Walker, informs her of the problem, and despite his reluctance is talked into being the replacement. In his words, “the children mustn’t be disappointed.” This establishes him as a kindly, responsible person; if you have a soul, he’s nigh impossible to dislike.
When that same organizer offers him a job being a full-time mall Santa, he can’t resist the opportunity to, as he says, combat some of the commercialism that has taken over Christmas. While on his throne, instead of recommending nothing but Macy’s toys, he informs customers of other chains that can provide what they really want. Oh, he’ll shill Macy’s when they’ve really got the product the kids want, but if he knows a better deal can be found somewhere else, nothing can convince him to hide that fact.
His employers are upset by this, for all of about ten seconds. Then they realize the kind of publicity their new Santa is bringing them, and suddenly he’s their most valuable employee. This becomes a problem when Doris discovers Kris’ delusion.
Doris is a very nuanced character. She is a single mother in the 40s who, contrary to what you might expect of that era, is portrayed as both a professional employee and an attentive, caring mother. Her only flaw is that she insists her daughter Susan be raised in an entirely practical way. This means not only no Santa Claus, but no fairy tales, tooth fairies or fantasies of any kind. Doris’ reasons are sympathetic. What happened to Susan’s father is never explained, but it seems he abandoned the family in some traumatic way, and that Doris blames fairy tales for giving her an unrealistic image of the knight in shining armor. She’s trying to protect her daughter from that. Instead of letting us assume that of course Doris is wrong, despite her good intentions, the movie bothers to show us the effects of this on Susan. She’s a very nice, intelligent girl, but her social life is stunted because she doesn’t know how to engage in imaginative play, even at a developmentally appropriate level. This means she’s missing out on creative and social skills that will be important later on in her life.
In addition to changing things at Macy’s Kris has another mission. He wants to teach Doris and Susan to open up. Doris is wounded by her loss of faith in people, and Susan is learning a reflexively cynical attitude from her. The interesting thing is that while he insists he is Santa Claus, he also doesn’t seem to care too much whether or not other people believe him. If other people believe in him, that’s a nice bonus, but its more important that they believe in what he stands for. His interventions with Susan aren’t centered around proving his reality, but on giving her imagination lessons. The scene where he teaches her to pretend to be a monkey is one of the most delightful things I’ve ever seen.
While Kris is trying to spread joy, optimism, childish creativity and the giving spirit, the department store psychologist is trying to get him committed as a lunatic. This movie has a remarkably nuanced approach to psychology. Unlike some movies, where the medical professionals would be creatures of unadulterated evil for daring to convince children that they shouldn’t believe in fantasies past when it’s developmentally appropriate (the nerve of them!), this film has two doctors. One, Dr. Sawyer, has clearly entered the profession because it gives him license to see the worst in everyone, which distracts him from his own small, petty character. A bit of an exaggeration, but we’ve all met people like this.
The other works at the nursing home where Kris lived previously. Dr. Pierce also believes Kris is delusional, but he doesn’t think Kris should be locked up. As he explains, mental illnesses don’t make someone inherently dangerous. Kris is gentle, intelligent, and his whole psychosis is centered around a desire to help people. All he needs is someone to keep an eye on him in case he takes a bad turn, and otherwise he should be treated just like anyone else. This is completely accurate. Mental health is complex, and the real world has many people whose situation is similar to Kris’s. Dr. Pierce’s reaction is not only humanitarian, but practical, especially in a world just prior to the invention of effective antipsychotic medication. An asylum couldn’t do much for him, so why not let him have the best quality of life that he can?
I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a delightfully happy one… and also lacks convincing proof that Kris really is Santa Claus. There’s a minor miracle, but one that has potential mundane explanations. Many of the good characters end up believing in him, but not all, and several seem to be at a point of agnosticism, or tell him they believe he is Santa Claus but seem to mean that metaphorically. The real lesson of the film is in the triumph of optimism and kindness over cynical self-interest, and whether characters end up believing in Santa as fact or as a metaphor for the Christmas spirit is not really important. The standard interpretation, that Kris Kringle was Santa all along, is fine if you prefer that, but it is based more in genre conventions than anything else.
So why don’t I find the interpretation that Kris Kringle is mentally ill depressing? Because even if he is, it means he’s a mentally ill person who still leads a fulfilling, happy life surrounded by people who care about him. It means that even in a world without magic, pragmatists and capitalists can see the value of kindness, cynics can rediscover hope, mean spirited trolls can lose and love can win. It means that even without fairy tales being real, imagination and joy can triumph.
First I was trying to write a post on writing disabled characters, and it assumed that Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory was autistic. That post will definitely still happen, for the record. Then I kept getting sidetracked by explaining why I believed he was autistic, even if it has neither been confirmed in story or by the authors. Explaining that in part means explaining my philosophy on the validity of interpretations. So I decided to make that a post all on its own. As part of that post, I started casually polling friends about their interpretations of interpretations. As I did this, I realized I was being a little dishonest to myself about my own philosophy, or rather how I apply it.
I originally meant to assert once again that all interpretations are equally valid, regardless of what the author says outside of the text. The only way an interpretation can be less valid is if it’s poorly supported by the text. I still essentially believe that, but as I talked to my friends I realized that I also like bending to the author’s stated intent as much as possible. I need a very serious reason to disagree with an author about their own work. Why do I do that?
Simple. Because the author is a point of reference who I have in common with all other readers.
I wrote a while back about how, while I enjoyed Harry Potter, I missed out on part of the Harry Potter experience by reading the books after the series was completely published, and the community that grew up with it and waited for each individual release was already nostalgic. Despite our common desire to have our own interpretations, most readers want to share their reading experience with somebody else. Having a community enhances the enjoyment for everyone who is a part of it… except perhaps when the community schisms. There are some divisions that seem to be playful, like certain popular shipping wars, but others that seem vitriolic and spiteful, like certain popular shipping wars.
In particular, divisions seem to get bitter when they depend on fundamentally different interpretations of the text. If you just like the dynamics of Katara and Zuko better than Katara and Aang, everything can stay fun, but if you believe, as one friend of mine did, that Katara and Aang getting together was incompatible with Aang’s mission to save the world, things can get heated in a not-fun way. When disagreements cut this deep, they can be hard to resolve, because the fans don’t have any evidence beyond the text, which is what caused the split in the first place.
In these cases, the author feels like the only one who can arbitrate. All us fans are on an equal footing, and there’s no reason any of us should be listened to over the other. The author, simply by virtue of having gone to the work of creating the piece, does stand out from the crowd of interpretations.
Or maybe that’s not it at all.
Maybe it’s that fiction is a shared delusion, but of course because your mind and my mind are different places, we are both bound to differ slightly in our interpretations. In your mind the flowers on the table are red roses. In mine they are yellow tulips. Most of the time these differences are so tiny they don’t disrupt the game of make-believe, but when they aren’t so small, that draws our attention to the fact that this is fiction. It slightly spoils the illusion. We want to be lost in our suspension of disbelief. When we let the author be the God of their world, able to dictate its laws, we can return to the illusion.
Unless of course the “word of God” fails to make sense. This brings me back to Sheldon, the original inspiration. I work with autistic children. I am regularly required to attend workshops about autism for my job. These workshops are taught by national experts, and they regularly illustrate their points with clips and gifs and screenshots of Sheldon. Sheldon exhibits the symptoms of high functioning autism so perfectly that when the creators say he doesn’t have it, to anyone with any real world experience of autism it sounds absurd. It’s like saying “he’s not blind, he just can’t see things and has a trained dog guide him around,” or “he’s not deaf, he just can’t hear so you have to learn to make words with your hands if you want to communicate.” The writers are drawing our attention to the fact that this is constructed universe, because we can only believe that Sheldon doesn’t have autism if this is a bizarre fictional world where the whims of some author reign supreme. Its impossible to both believe in Sheldon as a person, and believe in the Big Bang Theory universe and our universe, and not conclude that Sheldon has autism.
On reflection, I still think it’s the text that matters and not the author’s interpretation of it. However, I am perfectly capable of hearing somebody else’s interpretation and adopting it as my own because I like it. The author’s interpretation is as good as everyone else’s, and often it’s nice to adopt it because it helps lend coherence and verisimilitude to the story. Still, I don’t have to if I don’t want to.
I’m still working on the next part of the Stockholm Syndrome series, but I’ve had something of a rough week and that series is too important to me to do half assed. So here are some rambling thoughts on one of my favorite issues.
Recently I was reading a very vitriolic criticism of a popular author, who I personally like. Now, I’m not writing this to defend him. In fact, I will not name him, because I don’t want to distract myself from the point that I am about to make. I’m mentioning this because the criticisms were mostly of the fact that his female characters suffered. The assumption was that if they suffered, it was because he was misogynist. I couldn’t agree with that. If a trope such as Women in Refrigerators had been in effect, or they had suffered primarily so a man could rescue them, I would see the critic’s point, but neither applied. In fact, one of the things I appreciate about the writer is how his female characters usually suffer as part of an arc where they take action to regain their own agency.
The critic didn’t seem to realize that part of good characterization is letting your characters suffer. Suffering drives character arcs. It can add depth and reader sympathy. In fact, if I don’t make my characters suffer, its a good sign that I’m not actually very invested in them.
This lead me to thinking about an issue that I think is common to writers who want to do a better job writing diversity, or even addressing social issues in any form. On the one hand, you want to listen to criticism in order to do this properly. There are actions that seem like good ideas until you look closely at them (see the entire Magical Negro trope). Often pride will blind writers from taking an honest look at their work.
On the other hand, sometimes the critics haven’t thought hard enough about their own criticisms. I remember a conversation I had with my ex when he flat out admitted that for him, finding the problematic element of a story and ranting about it on Tumblr was a game for him. It was about being able to hold that problematic element over his head and declare that he had won, which made me very angry. Criticism shouldn’t be about an ego trip. It should be productive and of benefit to both fans and writers.
So how do you know whether you need to listen to a criticism or not? How do you know whether you need to call someone out on a something or not? I’ve thought about this issue for a long time, and the only conclusion that I’ve come to is that you can’t. Not with absolute certainty. You might ignore somebody who has a good point. You might bend over backwards to change for somebody who is wrong. I myself could be completely wrong in my criticism of that critic’s criticism. I am not, last I checked, infallible.
There are a few things I think can be done to improve your chances of being productive. First, you can check your ego. Don’t write for praise, don’t tear somebody else down to elevate your own standing, and don’t let yourself forget that you are a constant work in progress. If you can’t separate your writing from yourself, it increases the odds that you will either ignore criticism because it is uncomfortable, or accept it too readily because you want everyone’s pat on the back. Second, you can make it a point to expose yourself to multiple points of view, even ones you think you already disagree with. If you get comfortable listening to people with wildly different perspectives, you can make yourself less likely to reject a valid point just because it comes from a field you don’t like, or accept a poor one just because it comes from someone you like to think of as “one of my people.” Third, you can study critical thinking in general. Take a class, read a book on logic and rhetoric, practice taking off your emotional glasses and just thinking objectively.
If I may be tautological, I think the best you can do is to do your best. Odds are, you will not create the unimpeachable work, free of problematic tropes and destined to end racism, sexism and all the isms. As my boyfriend likes to say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Write what’s in your heart, think long and hard about whether what you’re saying is really what you want to say, and be ready for the possibility that someday you will look back, smack your forehead and say “what was I thinking?” It happens to everybody.
When talking about a story’s meaning, many people come to the conclusion that the meaning of a story is variable and personal, subject to individual interpretation. I myself have favored that in some of my previous posts. However, every time I say or hear this, it feels like a half-truth. I do think that interpretations can be more or less valid, on something of a double axis sliding scale.
The first axis is based on whether an interpretation rests on what is actually in the canonical work. I’ve seen interpretations that rely heavily on something that isn’t in the canonical work, or on ignoring something that is there. If someone can easily refute your interpretation by pointing to contradictory events in the story, that isn’t a good sign.
Because these interpretations are so easy to refute, it’s actually pretty rare for me to find one that I take issue with on that ground. I do recall, quite a long time ago, there was someone ranting on the internet about how sexist Firefly was. The author wrote that Zoe calls Mal “sir” and concludes that the show was saying something negative about black women. Nevermind that Zoe is intelligent, competent, outranks every male on the ship except Mal and is in no way subservient to her husband. Nevermind that she disobeys Mal and teases him as an equal. Nevermind that, in a time when women in the military is still controversial, she is a soldier even more competent than Mal, and that the way she calls Mal “sir” seems to have more to do with their shared military backstory and her identity as a soldier than any sense that she, as a person, is inferior to anybody. I could easily turn this into a very long rant about how poor that author’s reasoning was, but I’m going to resist, because it’s not the point of this blog. I was just hunting for an easy illustration of my point.
The other axis is based on how well a story lines up with reality. If these events played out in the real world, how would they be perceived? The question of whether Fifty Shades of Grey portrays romance or abuse hinges on this aspect of interpretation. Both sides are in agreement about the content of the novel, some simply claim that in real life it would not be abuse because “its this thing called BDSM, and things work differently there, I guess” and the other side says, “Yeah, no, all those things he does are absolutely considered abusive, especially in BDSM.” At this point I should confess (brag?) that I haven’t personally read the book, so I’m not going to argue a side, just say that those who have argued that it is abusive have done a better job of inclining me towards their point of view.
That second criteria is much more tricky to measure.
First, there are any number of stories where the events portrayed are improbable or impossible in the real world. This can be because the genre is science fiction or fantasy, because sloppy writing lead to plot holes and poor fact checking, or because the book was written back when people thought spontaneous human combustion was a thing. I could do a whole blog on those issues alone, so now that I’ve acknowledged them, I’m going to ignore them to keep this post simple.
Second, humans are not particularly well suited to figuring what reality actually is. There are vast swathes of the spectrum of light that we cannot see, as well as sounds we can’t hear, scents we can’t smell, and things we cannot taste or touch without physical damage. We cannot experience events before our births or after our death, and within our lives we can only visit a limited number of places in the universe. On top of that, our memories are flawed, reports from others can be biased, and any inferences we make must ultimately be based on one or more of those limited, flawed sources of knowledge. As a result, our own ideas about reality evolve constantly and will always disagree with the ideas of someone else.
This is why it is useful to debate and compare our different interpretations of a story. Stories are little models of reality; pretty, self-contained dioramas of what the author thinks real life is like. This gives the rest of us something tidy and consistent and to look at together. We then compare it to our images of reality, we all share the results, and we have a new means to figure out where we disagree and why.
There is still plenty of room for subjective interpretations. For example, in the beginning of Frozen, Elsa’s parents try to teach her to control her powers, while isolating her from the rest of the kingdom. I saw parents whose intentions were good, but who ultimately did more damage by encouraging her to feel ashamed, isolated and repressed. Then I watched Confused Matthew’s review, and he saw a plan to give her the space to figure herself out in private, and step two would be teaching her to reintegrate into society. To him, the tragedy is that, if they had been able to continue, things might have turned out just fine.
Neither of our interpretations are more rooted in the film than others. They rely on assumptions about alternate futures and the parent’s knowledge and intentions, which we can only guess at, based on a short song montage. I don’t think either one is more realistic, either. The real world contains both parents who might handle that kind of problem well, and ones who might handle it terribly, despite the best of intentions. If Confused Matthew and I sat down together and compared our views, we would learn something interesting about each other, about our biases and experiences, but neither of us would walk away feeling that our own interpretation was wrong, or that the other’s was right.
I am not a relativist. I think that there is an objective reality out there, and the history of human science and philosophy is the history of a tiny, fragile little race fumbling out to grasp hold of it. I like thinking about what stories mean because I think they are part of that history, and I wish we had a better common language to help us discuss them on the same terms. So I offer up these basic rules of thumb as a candidate.
What do you think? Am I making sense? How objective or subjective do you think stories are?
Edit; I was recently rewatching John and Hank Green‘s Crash Course videos, because they are excellent so why not watch them thirty-seven-ish times? When I came to John Green’s intro to the literature series I realized what he says overlaps a lot with what I’ve written about, and that he probably directly inspired a lot of my current thoughts. I don’t think I’ve plagiarized him, but I do think his influence was extensive enough that I really should credit him, and also encourage everyone to go watch a lot of his videos. Really I should do that last one anyways, because he and Hank are brilliant people who deserve to be watched all the time by everyone. That is all.
As a lifelong aspiring writer, I have read a lot of books on writing. It is very common for them to break the elements of storytelling into plot, character, setting and theme, and then discuss the role that each one plays. Some stories focus more on one over the others, and there are ways to stretch the boundaries of each one into something very unconventional, but all good stories have elements of all four. The way the four interact is ultimately what makes a story good.
There is no shortage of advice on how to make plot, character and setting good. Writers and literary critics have cut well into the core of each of them and what makes them tick, what remains the same about each of them no matter how much they are played with, and so on. Advice on theme, on the other hand, tends to feel more like sidebars. Most of the advice boils down to either “don’t set out with a theme in mind; let it arise naturally from the plot” or “be super wary of Unfortunate Implications.” Robert McKee’s Story takes a stab at diagramming out values of a scene, but I have found his system very clunky and unhelpful both in writing and analyzing other people’s stories. I do not accept that there is no way to explain how to write themes well. It has become a particular puzzle that I pick away at, make some progress on (or think I have), then put away to chip at more another day. I hope to go on picking at it for a long time.
Here is a piece of the answer, or so I think; theme is the only part of story that is collaborative. If a writer says that a particular character has a long thick mustache and a bad habit of picking his nails, which he adopted specifically to annoy his mother, then he’s a mustached nail picker with mommy issues. If a writer says that the train was delayed by rail work which caused the protagonist to miss the deadline to leave the ransom money, then that is exactly what happened. If the villain meets the hero in a forest of oak trees, then the setting for that scene is a forest of oak trees. If, on the other hand, the writer says that the love interest was captured by the anti-hero and tortured by him until her goodness overcame his cold heart and they embarked on a passionate love, some readers will inevitably cry, “Stockholm Syndrome!” and while their claim can be disputed, it can’t just be disputed on the grounds of “the author said it was a loving and totally non-abusive relationship.” Readers instead compare what is portrayed in the story with what Stockholm Syndrome is in the real world, and consensus rests on how well the two correlate, not on the word of the author.
This is where I get into sticky, disputed territory myself. There are schools of literary criticism that focus entirely on deducing what the author intended, and the Death of the Author school, which argues that the author’s opinion of their own work is one hundred percent irrelevant. I fall somewhere between the two schools of thought. What the author intended is an interesting start, but the reader’s reactions are equally relevant. Mark Twain clearly intended Huckleberry Finn as a criticism of slavery; there is both textual and extra-textual support for that. That does not mean that black readers who are uncomfortable with aspects of the book (or non-black readers, for that matter) are invalid in their views. It does not mean that readers can not find other themes in the work, and they are not limited by what he intended, consciously or unconsciously. The theme of Huckleberry Finn rests in the interaction between the text and the readers.
The authors’ themes are their chance to chime in on a dialog that transcends not only themselves, but their own time periods. Human culture, and its evolution, is an ongoing discussion of the big questions; what is love, what is justice, how do we find satisfaction, what should we value, and so on. A book is a question, or essay or diatribe or mere quip, that that the author throws into the discussion, and everyone who reads it gets to put in their own response. Those responses might take the form of a brief comment made to a friend, an Amazon review, a fifth grade homework essay, a professional thesis, or their own book, among it.
Themes are good when they provide something of great value to the big, ongoing discussion. They can do this in a number of ways; providing a new idea, reviving an old one, reconciling two ideas that seemed equally true but irreconcilable, asking a new question, or just doing a great job expressing what many people are already thinking. There can be many themes to a book, or just one (books with just one theme tend to feel didactic, and have less staying power than those with many, but that’s not always the case).
This could be used to argue that theme is something that can not be talked about objectively; not in the way plot holes can. Every reader will have a different reaction to the same book, so if theme lies in the interaction between the reader and the book, every instance of reading creates a new theme. People can not talk about “the theme of Huckleberry Finn,” they can only talk about their own personal theme of Huckleberry Finn. I think that’s true, but I think there is still room for objective criticism of a story’s theme. There is still much that unites humans as a species, even across cultures, so the thoughts that one story can spur in one person can be similar to the ones they spur in another person. Some stories consistently capture people’s imaginations, or move large numbers of people to do the same thing. Conversely, if two people get a different impression of the same story, they can still have a conversation where one convinces the other that their impression is the one best supported.
Here I have to stop, not just because the post has gotten long, but because I have hit the limits of my thoughts. I am only putting into writing what has made sense to me so far, so it can become a solid platform for me to push off into new ideas. For me, that’s what all writing is about, ultimately. Please share your own thoughts, ideas, and especially your reasons for thinking I am totally and completely wrong.