“Everything seems simple until you think about it.”—Audrey Niffenegger, from The Time Traveler’s Wife
I recently finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife for the first time. I know, I know—it’s about time, right? It only came out sixteen years ago! If only I could go back and read it sooner (heh). The nudge to finally act came from a thread in a writers’ forum, asking which books writers have read more than once. TTTW came up quite a few times, and made the all-time favorite list of quite a few writers. I now see why (it left me floating in a puddle for the rest of the day that I finished).
The book left me thinking long after I hoisted myself from the puddle and dried out. I can see myself rereading it, too. The book has special meaning because one of its main themes is determinism versus free-will. Which is one of the central themes in my WIP.
Even before I was halfway through, I began to notice similarities between the book’s protagonists, Clare and Henry, and Vahldan and Elan—my WIP’s protagonists. Henry is a reluctant time-traveler. Due to a genetic disorder, he has no choice as to when he travels or to what destination (geographic or chronologic). Vahldan is a reluctant chieftain. Due to his legacy, and his seemingly perfect fit in a prophesy, (he believes) he has no choice in becoming the catalyst to an insurgency within his Gothic nation.
Both Clare and Elan come to feel duty-bound to the fated men they love. But both of them feel torn between accepting and rejecting that fate. Though Clare seems comfortable with the inevitability of marrying Henry, she frequently questions his determinism, asking him if the future can’t somehow be changed—particularly when it comes to her becoming a mother. Elan, too, constantly pushes back against Vahldan’s adherence to his foretold destiny, at one point luring him to an almost deserted island and pleading with him to just stay there with her. “We can just let it go. We’d be free of it at last.”
But the one thing neither Clare nor Elan can do is walk away from these epic loves of their lives. Is it fate that holds them, or is it choice?
Intuitively Exploring Destiny
Looking back on my body of work, I can see that I have always been drawn to exploring this age-old debate. I suppose a lot of it derives from my rebellious nature in regard to dogma. I’ve always been interested in my characters’ reactions to imposed expectations and conventions. I originally included a prophecy not to meet any sort of trope expectations for the fantasy genre, but to reveal how nebulous such foretelling often is, and how the interpretation of prophecies often suits the purposes of those who propagate them.
It was the daughter of dear friends–a young lady I’ve known nearly all of her life–who first broached the topic. She was the first reader of the first version of my WIP (back when it was a single volume). She’d started reading before I was done writing it, and swiftly caught up. One Sunday she called to ask me when she could have the final chunk, and said something like, “So the whole thing is an exploration of fate versus free-will, right?”
I should mention that she’s extremely bright.
I quickly covered for the fact that she’d startled me. I hadn’t really considered it. I’m guessing she noticed my befuddlement, but let me off the hook.
That was in 2011.
Since then, in spite of being made aware of my tendency toward a fate versus free-will theme, I somehow seem to continue to misplace that awareness. Just a month ago, a wise mentor asked the question once again: “You are aware that you’re exploring free-will versus determinism, right?”
And, once again, I found myself startled and covering for it (and again, was kindly let off the hook). In other words, fate versus free-will wasn’t at the fore of conscious thought as I composed. And I’m glad about that. I suspect that—for me—too much conscious consideration of any theme could push my work toward preachiness. Or at the least, it might lead me away from the most natural behavior and dialog for my characters.
As the title of the essay implies, I think the leveraging of theme is work best done in revision.
Utilizing the Lever of Theme
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”—Stephen King, from On Writing
As I say, a lot of what I now perceive as a foundational theme for my story came about intuitively. And I’m guessing this is true for most of us. The things that deeply concern us—that haunt us, that incite our passions, or that tug at our deepest yearnings—are bound to arise in our storytelling.
So how do we go about utilizing theme in revision? As in all aspects of writing, I continue to be a student. But I thought it might be helpful to pass along what I’m learning in my current revision work.
As themes go, I think fate versus free-will is a pretty stellar one—so versatile and applicable. I wasn’t just looking to see if I was personally more inclined to determinism or free-will. It’s become evident to me that I have very complex, and even conflicting, views and feelings about it (more on that later). In moving beyond merely advocating for a side, I’ve been taking a look at the many facets of this story that reflect both sides of the debate. Particularly via the prism of my characters.
For example, I can see the many ways that my two protagonist symbolize these opposing positions—Vahldan representing determinism and Elan representing free-will. That’s straight-forward and a good starting point, but it’s only the beginning. Knowing this gives me some levers I can push and pull during revision.
The Time Traveler’s Wife has helped to inform me in this regard. For example, Henry’s time-traveling affliction seems to utterly condemn him to determinism. He clearly can’t alter what’s already happened. And it seems, in all of his early attempts, he is unable to change the future. But this frustrates him. He avoids sharing information about the future with past versions of himself and others. He says knowing the future is depressing, and leads to bad things. He works hard throughout the story to try to change fate. In other words, Henry strives for free-will.
I want to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t experienced this powerful story. But I feel there’s a case to be made for both Henry’s failure and his success in his pursuit of escaping fate and realizing some measure of free-will. But the fact that he’s symbolic of determinism and yet strives to escape it, makes the resolution all the more powerful.
In my current revision, I’m striving to establish in Vahldan a youthful tendency toward free-will, with an aversion to dogma. He sees his father’s legacy as a trap. He is repulsed by his father’s bloody past. Only through his father’s death, and his own feelings of guilt over it, does he swear an oath to his father. An oath that seals his fate, and puts him on a path toward a destiny he feels he cannot avoid. Because others believe he is destined to greatness, Vahldan finds power in his determinism. Power that fuels his ambition. And through his rejection of his true self, he blinds himself to the corrosive influence of his adopted fatalism.
Throughout the story, Elan represents Vahldan’s tenuous connection to free-will, and to his true self—one that he’s willfully abandoned. Elan has used her free-will to choose to bind herself to Vahldan’s destiny. In making the choice, she severs her connection to her former life, which damages and distorts her connection to her true self. She feels beaten down by fate. Her submission to determinism triggers her primary inner conflict, and literally makes her sick (physically and mentally).
In other words, belief in destiny is a choice, but it’s a choice that demands submission to it. One which necessitates the sacrifice of free-will.
Knowing these things as I revise is bound to enhance the alignment and strengthen the clarity of the story. I’m hoping that utilizing the levers of free-will and fate will make Vahldan’s and Elan’s arcs, their redemptions, and the story’s resolution, all the more powerful.
Destined to Choose
By now you’ve probably gleaned my own inner conflict. I think, at the thematic level, we’re all seeking to sort ourselves out. And as I said, this question has been fundamental for me from the onset. I often feel like things happen for a reason. I still say things like, I was meant to tell this story, or that I’ve found my calling. Those are very deterministic concepts.
I have to be careful, too, about my storytelling. Because of the existence of earlier versions of this story, and the completed story that comes subsequent to it, I’ve found myself telling editors and critique partners that the events within it are predetermined, or fixed.
But I still strongly believe in free-will. I get to choose, damn it. And not just what happens in my stories.
I’ll leave you with a favorite quote that sums my feelings up nicely.
“What we call our destiny is inside us. It is truly our character and that character can be altered. The knowledge that we are responsible for our actions and attitudes does not need to be discouraging, because it means we are free to change our destiny.”—Anaïs Nin
And now you are destined to choose. Do you have a central theme for your WIP? Can you see ways to utilize it as a lever? What lessons did you take away from Time Traveler’s Wife? What lessons on theme have you learned from any favorite book?