When I read this post at John Scalzi’s blog where Guy Gavriel Kay discussed the overarching theme of his novels, my mind started racing. (If you’re not sure who Guy Gavriel Kay is, click here. For John Scalzi, click here.)
Anyway, if you don’t feel like reading that post, Guy Gavriel Kay mentioned that he was asked why all of his books have the theme of exile. If you’ve read his books (I read Tigana), you might be nodding at this point and saying, “Yeah, I see that.”
I love the notion of having an overarching theme, a thread connecting all of my novels. It kind of reminds me of the dog that pops up in the illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg’s picture books—a fun extra readers know will be there. But on a deeper level, having something that links all of my novels is a way of sharing a passion of mine.
Now, you might be thinking, if I’m working on four novels (a duology and two stand alones), how on earth could I have a linking theme? Okay, I’ll tell you.
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of the journey as teacher—the hero’s journey—and often gravitate toward books of that ilk: Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien; The Odyssey by Homer; Beowulf; Sabriel by Garth Nix; The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett; Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson; The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis; The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. (And by hero, I mean male or female.) Once that realization dawned during my third semester of grad school, I knew I had settled on a topic for my critical thesis, as well as a structure for the young adult fantasy novel I was struggling with at the time.
With a journey story, the emphasis is on movement. No stagnant pool here, but a flowing river with rapids and turns. As Joseph Campbell stated in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand. (Campbell 51)
A compelling journey story involves struggles beyond the daily “I ran into traffic” grind. Consider the journeys you find most memorable: rescue missions, mountain-climbing adventures, immigration stories, migrations (of animals too, if you watched the documentary Winged Migration). With journeys, character strengths and weaknesses come into focus.
Blake Snyder, author of the popular screenwriting tips book, Save the Cat, uses the term golden fleece in his discussion of hero’s journey stories. If you’re up on Greek mythology, you know that the quest undertaken by Jason and the Argonauts involved the search for the golden fleece. According to Snyder:
The theme of every Golden Fleece movie is internal growth. . . . It’s not the mileage we’re racking up that makes a good Golden Fleece, it’s the way the hero changes as he goes. (Snyder 28)
Reading these stories, some larger than life, makes us want to test our own limits, don’t they? The most powerful journey stories can inspire us to be better people—to do what we can to effect change in our world.
What journey stories inspire you? If you’ve read all or most of an author’s books, what theme, if any, have you noticed as a common thread?
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press/Bollingen Series XVII, 1949. Print.
Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat! Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions/Sheridan Books, 2005. Print.