For a recent submission, I was asked to describe myself as an author and how I would define my brand.
The question caught me off guard, although I’m not sure why. I’m well aware of writers having brands—the brand of, say, Ernest Hemingway is unique and recognizably different from the brand of P. D. James, which is very different from the brand of J. K. Rowling. And I’ve had conversations with other writer friends about themes or character types or situations that recur throughout my novels.
I was drinking coffee with my sister in a Barnes and Noble discussing our fiction when I realized almost all my novels feature war, including traumatizing circumstances such as enemy occupation, genocide, and torture. In my novels that don’t feature war, the main characters still endure some sort of defining trauma, like the betrayal of a spouse or the unearthing of a damning secret.
“What do you think that is?” my sister asked.
The armchair analyst in me assumes I’m constantly processing my own wounds and insecurities and fears through my writing, through the situations I put my characters in, through the ways they react to each other and change. But I’m not sure if the working out of my own experiences accounts for a persistent focus on trauma.
In thinking more about repeated themes in my novels, I realized the proposed responses or solutions for trauma changed as I grew older. In my teenage fiction, the heroic response to violence and genocide was revenge: the good, satisfying ending of the story was killing the bad guys. The novels of my early twenties were more ambivalent: trauma visited my characters even when they meant well, or sometimes it was self-inflicted. These characters were powerless to help themselves, and all they could muster in the end was confusion and grief at what had happened. If there was a clear enemy to fight against, the heroes could do their best to protect others from the villain, but there was no final victory or justice, no putting them behind bars where they couldn’t continue to hurt society.
My more recent novels have been more optimistic and more social, even as they are just as dark or darker than my early fiction. The characters still experience deep loss and pain, but they are generally more resilient people, with more functional social networks who are better able to adapt and grow. Their problems aren’t all tied up in a neat bow by the end of the book, but they can see a path forward and can imagine a future for themselves.
If trauma is the inciting incident of almost all my novels, and my “color palette” tends toward the gothic, the developing theme I’m finding is empathy. In their own dark circumstances, my characters find the connection and support they need when they can put aside differences or prejudices or assumptions and see others as they truly are.
Unsurprisingly, this is also the work I think fiction does best: putting us readers in someone else’s shoes so we can really experience their thoughts and feelings and actions. If I think such acts of imaginative empathy are good for my characters, of course I think they’re good for my readers too.