One piece of advice I often hear given to writers is: Read. Read lots. Read lots of things. So I thought it might be fun to spend the next post or two reflecting on the various odd media that I ingest and what I might learn from them. Today I would like to reflect on how an author uses personal themes and tropes.
I am currently reading, among other things, a Pulitzer prize winning novel and a series of comic books. So let’s talk about the comic books. I am currently reading X-Men Forever and boy howdy, has someone let Chris Claremont off his leash.
Perhaps I had better explain that. Chris Claremont was (quite deservedly) one of the rising stars of the American superhero comics industry in the late seventies and early eighties. He wrote a lot of titles, including a small, floundering book called the X-Men, which he (along with artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne) elevated to the status of Marvel’s flagship title.
Along the way he explored some themes and ideas that were just beginning to show up in the genre – the potentially corrupting influence of great power, heroes and villains switching sides, heroes having to fight other heroes (not in the silly misunderstandings already common in the genre but in deadly earnest), heroes being transformed and having to readjust to who they are now, heroic sacrifices and unexpected character deaths, strange and unexpected turns in the heroes’ love lives, and a focus on the female characters becoming increasingly more powerful.
Flash forward to 2009. Claremont has long since left the X-Men for other titles, and even taken a break from comics to pen a few novels. Wherever he’s worked, he’s continued to explore the ideas he helped pioneer back in the X-Men. And then someone has a great idea – let’s publish a comic series showing what the X-Men would have been if Claremont had never left the book. Pick right up where he left off.
And now we get to the part about writing: it’s not wrong to work with certain themes, motifs, ideas and all, but they can become a trap. You see, X-Men Forever has a slight problem: it’s all Claremont’s established themes and ideas, all the the time. Heroes and villains switching sides? Got five of ‘em. Transformations? At least three. Unexpected character deaths? Start right up in the second issue. Heroes fighting heroes in deadly earnest? All the bloody time. And all the rest, too.
Authors naturally write about what interests them. We like to explore themes and use plot tricks we think are entertaining. And if we are lucky enough to be well established and have a fan following (which, let’s be fair, describes Claremont but not me) it is likely due, at least in part, because our readers like the paths we choose to explore.
I have, over the years, noticed repeating ideas in my work. I have several romantic pieces based on the idea that true love is a crock and you don’t get a happy ending unless you work for it. My novels all touch on the responsibility of power and the consequences of its misuse.
So how do we know when to stop? When are we approaching an idea from a new perspective or when are we just repeating ourselves? I wish I knew. But I suspect we start by acknowledging the problem.
Tune in next time when I explore what I’ve observed about character development from playing online games.