Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guest Post! Cinda Williams Chima

I love guest posts. I especially love hearing from authors on pretty much anything to do with writing. Today's post is by Cinda Williams Chima, author of several YA novels including the newly released book, The Exiled Queen.

On Theme

From the inbox:

Hello, I’m doing a book report on your book. Can you tell me the theme of The Demon King? Also if you could give me a list of your major and minor characters, the major conflict and its resolution, it would help me out a lot. –Signed, Desperate in Des Moines

Ah, theme. Why not go straight to the author when you’re on deadline? Didn’t you ever want to raise your hand in English class during the discussion of The Lord of the Flies, and say, “Well, actually, I emailed William Golding last night, and Golding said he didn’t make Jack red-headed as a symbol of anarchy. Jack was modeled after this obnoxious red-headed kid he knew growing up.”
My usual answer to theme questions is that readers and writers are partners in story, and that every reader has a different take-away based on his personal history and beliefs. So, I say, decide for yourself what the theme is, but be ready to defend it.
Kids hate this.
I think it’s a mistake to write to a theme. It becomes too much like a “lesson,” as in, I’m going to write a story that demonstrates the consequences of disobeying your parents. Theme grows out of story, not the other way around. Anything that gets between the reader and the story dispels the dream of fiction. 
That said, I’ve noticed that themes tend to resurface in my novels. For instance, all of my books are about transformation. I love the notion of second chances, since I’m continually transforming myself.
Adolescence is a time of transformation. The characters in fantasy stories are often teens, because that is when we come of age and assert power over the world, and that is when magical gifts often manifest.  
I’ve had readers of The Demon King write to me and say, “That Princess Raisa ana’Marianna is spoiled and na├»ve.” Well, yes she is, to begin with. But she won’t stay that way—not if she wants to survive. I hope that readers see in her the roots of the queen she will become.
Her counterpart, Han Alister, is a cynical, streetwise thief and gangleader with a magical heritage bound up in the silver wristcuffs he’s worn since birth. He, too, is reinventing himself. He, too, has assumptions that need changing, especially about himself.
When Han’s and Raisa’s worlds collide, it is the catalyst for change in both of them. The Seven Realms quartet is the story of a journey from childhood into adulthood in—um—extreme circumstances.
I’m also intrigued by the notion of secrets—secret lives and hidden pasts. For years, I had a secret life as a writer of fantasy fiction. Now I am totally outed.
Much of the conflict and drama in the Seven Realms cycle is driven by the secrets people keep from each other, and from themselves. I use an alternating third person point of view so that at any given point, the reader has more information than any of the characters, which is a great way to ramp up tension.
A third overarching theme of the Seven Realms cycle is the notion of revisionist history—the consequences of the Big Lie.
George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But even students of history will fail if the history they’ve been taught is wrong. History, after all, is often written by the victors, and other folk with agendas other than the truth.
As The Demon King opens, the peoples of the queendom of the Fells have been squabbling for a thousand years—ever since the magical catastrophe known as the Breaking shattered the Seven Realms. In the words of Han Alister, “Wizards, flatlanders, and the aboriginal mountain clanscouldn’t agree that water was wet and the sky was blue.”
After the Breaking, a network of rules and restrictions called the Naeming was put in place to keep wizards in check and queens from marrying foolishly. But now, the Bayars, a powerful wizard dynasty, are on the rise again, and the clans are restricting the flow of the magical tools the wizards depend on. The queendom teeters on the brink of civil war, and Raisa worries she will inherit a disintegrating ruin.
There’s only one thing the warring parties agree on: A thousand years ago, the powerful young wizard known as the Demon King nearly destroyed the world, until the warrior queen Hanalea killed him and saved the Seven Realms. 
The problem is, that story may not be true. In fact, the peoples of the Fells may have been victims of an elaborate hoax. The question is—who benefits from a lie that’s been told for a millennium? And how does that play out in the lives of characters in the fictional present-day?

The Demon King is now available in paperback, and The Exiled Queen released September 28. Excerpts from each of my books are available on my website, Help for writers can be found under Tips for Writers, including a document called, “Getting Started in Writing for Teens.”
I blog at, where you’ll find rants, posts on the craft of writing, and news about me and my books.


Charles Gramlich said...

Back in 05 I did a bunch of short biographies on writers (1500 words a piece or so) and in fact contacted a number of the writers through the net to get details and to double check my facts. I was amazed at how helpful almost all of them were.

Interesting post.

Melissa W. said...

Theme grows out of story, not the other way around. Anything that gets between the reader and the story dispels the dream of fiction.

Very well put. I have a warning on the contact page of my website, telling students flat out that I'm not going to be able to help them define the theme of my novels, I don't know what they are. I don't write with theme in mind (though I write with a little anxiety at the back of my brain that I ought to have a theme) and just hope that one will emerge by the time I'm done. Often, someone else has to tell me what it is. If pressed, I usually tell students "It's something to do with choice, if that helps you."