I have a B.A. in English, and the bulk of my studies were focused on Western literature. In our classes, we would scrutinize, analyze, and criticize texts down to abusurdly minute details. This was often very tedious and frustrating, but it did help me appreciate books on multiple levels, not merely whether a story was good or bad. One facet of this analysis was examine a text as an unwitting psychological portrait of the author, learning about their lives through clues in the pages.
Now that I have several books under my belt, I would like to turn the microscope on myself. I’ve identified a few common themes and symbols that frequently crop up in my writing, and I have offered my interpretations for them.
1. Eyes and Breathing
Words can lie. Smiles can be false. But it is hard to conceal one’s true feelings with their eyes. I frequently describe where a character is looking, since that may speak even more loudly than the words they say. I also like to describe how a character breathes, whether it is rapid, or a sigh of relief, or a startled gasp. Breathing is a largely involuntary reaction and it is difficult to regulate before someone notices. The eyes and breathing are dead giveaways for what someone is truly feeling.
2. Parental Absence
This is interesting because until my father passed away a few years ago, he and my mother enjoyed more than three decades of happy marriage. My brothers and I were raised in what I believe was a strong, healthy family environment. After I left home and came to China, I went a bit crazy for a while as most expats do, but after getting married and having children of my own, I made a conscious choice to emulate the strength that I saw in my parents’ relationship and the structure it gave to our family.
Yet in my books, one or both of the parents are either dead or otherwise absent. Perhaps because my characters are often fed through very traumatic circumstances, I feel it adds to their imbalance by removing the parental rocks from their lives. Everyone wants to have that loving mother and father figure, but the truth is that many do not have that and it can make someone feel less secure in this uncertain world. For my books, it won’t do for my characters to have a safe haven to run to when things get sticky.
Tattoos rock. Enough said.
4. The Search for Moral and Spiritual Truth
In my own life, I had a bit of a crisis of faith when I first left home, and I was forced to evaluate what I truly believed apart from the influence of those around me. This tension can be far more dramatic than a dangerous rescue mission or a savage firefight. I want the turmoil my characters go through to permeate multiple levels of their lives, not just the problem of getting from A to B or finding the answer to a puzzle. Every action needs motivation but I want the motivation to come from within, not just be a reaction to outside events. This is especially apparent in The Age of Apollyon Trilogy, where the protagonist’s moral and spiritual growth throughout the books is quite startling but intensely necessary to the story.
5. No Heroes
We all read books to escape the humdrum day-to-day, but I often feel insulted whem I’m handed Hollywood archetypical characters with little of the aforementioned moral dilemmas that plague every person on this planet. It doesn’t mean that everyone is equal parts good and bad – every story needs heroes and villains. But the heroes in my books aren’t heroes in their essence. They may do heroic things, but their characters and sense of right and wrong are just as unstable, if not more so, than the villains they’re up against. I like it when the person that I’m rooting for does something that makes me uncomfortable, since it forces me to engage my imagination, logic, and morality more thoroughly, rather than just letting me sit back and enjoy the show. Life is full of quandaries and the people going through them usually don’t have the luxury to take it easy and weigh the pros and cons. The decisions we make change our lives all the time and there’s nothing we can do once that decision has been made. Life forces us to hastily pick our roller coasters and then all we can do is hang on. To me, putting that in a book makes it far more interesting than simply watching good vs. evil duke it out. I need something with a bit more teeth.
6. Abrupt Endings
I love watching a movie or TV program and having something incredibly important happen in the last five seconds. Many stories have their grand finale and then tack on an obligatory chapter or epilogue to fill in the gaps of the story after it’s over. I say let the reader do that themselves. Slam the door in their face, leaving them pleasantly stunned. For me, the ending is everything and I love being thrown for a loop. It’s even more satisfying when I think, “Well, it’s almost over; there’s not enough room for anything important to happen now.” But sometimes even a single final sentence can totally change the story, and that feeling of having the rug pulled out from under me is what I love experiencing and letting others experience as well.