Dealing with Themes in Writing

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One of the subplots in Vodnik is how the main character deals with racism in Slovakia. Can I just say that writing about this topic has proved to be one of the trickier parts of the book? The problem I have is that I have very clear opinions and beliefs when it comes to the subject, but all the characters in the book have different views on it. Dealing with all the different views while at the same time trying to explore my own through the story . . . it’s much harder than I ever imagined it would be.

My blog is different. I can just talk about whatever comes into my head, going off on diatribes ranging from Are Mormons Christian to Health Care Reform to Why Mice are Evil. I can explore the topic all on my lonesome, saying just what I feel without having to worry about things like advancing the plot, developing characters, and not being too boring. (Well, hopefully my blog posts aren’t too boring, but I’m not as worried about a single blog post as I am about an entire book.)

It’s different with books. For one thing, I really don’t want the book to be “About Something.” I dislike it when authors try to preach, and it’s something young adult authors can be prone to do at times. Young Adults don’t need adults telling them what to think, thank you very much. They’re plenty mature to form their own opinions. But I think everyone can be benefited by being exposed to new topics and new ideas. If you’ve lived your whole life without going more than 50 miles beyond your birthplace, you can have a pretty narrow view of the world. (Not a guarantee, but a possibility.) Literature and movies can help you go beyond those boundaries, pointing out different conflicts you might not have been aware of before, and even making you look at yourself in different ways. At the same time, teens aren’t my only audience with this book. Lee and Low (and by extension, Tu) market their books to schools and libraries, as well. So I have to keep in mind that adults are going to be looking at it and making purchasing decisions, too.

I’m not saying I’m trying to make Vodnik a piece of Great American Literature. My primary concern is to entertain. To make a really good book that people want to read and that compels you to keep turning pages. But at the same time, some of the plot lines demand exploration of those themes. Yesterday I wrote an extra scene where Tomas (the main character) talks with his mom about racism. She’s half Roma (the more acceptable word for Gypsies, which is a pejorative, in case you didn’t know), and he’s a quarter Roma. They have olive skin–not really dark, but certainly not light skinned as most Slovaks. In America, Tomas never really had to deal much with racism. His school had a good bit of melting pot to it, and so it wasn’t really an issue. In Slovakia, it isn’t nearly as easy. There’s a long history of conflict between Roma and Slovaks, and Tomas finds himself smack dab in the middle of it. His mom grew up with it.

So they have a conversation where he’s frustrated about how people are treating him in the town, and she talks to him about how it’s not that big of a deal–how once people get to know him, they’ll stop treating him like that. From there the conversation goes on to talk about judging by appearances in general and how much everyone is (or isn’t) prey to it. And because I can’t just get bogged down in the middle of a scene talking too much about all this, the entire conversation had to be shorter than this blog post. And interesting, and appropriate, and . . .

It wasn’t easy to write. I thought it would just take me a little bit, but it took much longer than that. Not hours or anything, but it just got me thinking about this topic. Hence the blog post.

Question for other authors/writers out there. Have you dealt with this sort of thing before? How have you handled it? I’d be interested for other opinions . . .

(Bonus points to whomever can figure out the connection between this picture and the post topic.)

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