The Rewrite, again
Back at the beginning of the month, a pair of (anonymous) questions regarding craft came in: How much of a biography do you give secondary characters before introducing them into a novel? And, Do you write around themes, or do the themes emerge as you tell yourself the story?
Both of these boil down to the rewrite process. The rough-and-tumble of a first draft sees the introduction of all kinds of ideas and all sorts of characters. Itâ€™s the preliminary sketch period, when broad lines are drawn and details are a little sparse. In other words, Iâ€™m not sure what is a secondary character or what the themes are until I can see the shape of the entire book, beginning to end, and judge what it is and what it needs.
Some secondary characters are only there to advance the flow of action, like rocks in a Japanese stream: Itâ€™s best to have interesting shapes, but they canâ€™t be too dominant because their role is part of the flow, not central feature. Sometimes this means paring down their more interesting qualities in order to let them fade a bit.
Other times something sharp and quirky is needed, and even though a character is of little importance in the ultimate scheme of things, the flow needs a quick jog in order to keep the readerâ€™s attention.
Similarly with themes. Although I have to admit, Iâ€™m not exactly positive what the themes are in a book. I know some of the ideas Iâ€™m trying to work withâ€”for example, in THE GAME I was playing up the parallel between the 1920s and now when it comes to the political quagmire of Afghanistan and northern India, as I shaped O JERUSALEM around the clear link between the actions of the British Mandate and the mess in Israel today. I suppose those parallels are thematic. But what is the theme of WITH CHILD? That some kids are hugely screwed by society, yet manage to survive intact? So? That hardly seems worth writing an entire novel in order to say.
Iâ€™d be curious to know what people see as the themes in some of my books, and perhaps I could respond to those.