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The One With Anil's Ghost and Crime, Part I (Challenging Your Readers and Their Perceptions, the Truth Edition)

Michael Ondaatje, of The English Patient fame, set one of his novels in Sri Lanka in the 1970s, in the midst of their civil war, about a UN anthropologist of Sri Lankan roots, raised in the US, who returns to her homeland and grapples with the cultural divide as she tries to determine the identity of a skeleton uncovered at an ancient burial site. This novel is Anil's Ghost. In this series, The One With Anil's Ghost and Crime, I'll explore the role genre plays in determining our characters, our plots, how it opens up our possibilities for originality, as well as structure and form, textual integrity and themes.

Today, I'm looking at how this novel is absolutely relevant to the discussion of forcing an engagement between your readers and your theme (not preaching, I should confirm right now), through the exploration of truth.

The problem that so many writers have with themes is that there is this preconception they stick up like a flag post, like a white flag in the middle of a charred battlefield, and although they stick into the same grounding as everything else in the work, they are somehow separate from what they don't directly relate to. You'll find themes so effective once you realise that they permeate every layer of the novel, that they resound through every character, through every plotting decision, no matter how minor they are. They interweave with setting, and if you figure out how to use them right, they'll help you unfold character information, backstory, etc.

Let's digress for a minute. Crime fiction blossoms in times of hardship as it offers concrete solutions to chaos, it lets us solve our societal, even personal, problems by solving a mystery with a hardened, superior detective. This sense of justice, this sense of truth, in the resolution of crimes and the punishment of the villain, is well and truly upheld by Western culture. Now, Ondaatje takes us into an Eastern culture (and we'll not get into how YA would only benefit from an expansion of its cultural borders) and in turn, through these foreign ideals, challenges our perceptions of truth and justice, where our values are forcibly rejected by our setting.

This is where your protagonist's characterisation is pivotal. Your protagonist is instrumental to the wiring of your entire work. Ondaatje gives us a Sri Lankan woman who was raised in the West. She looks Sri Lankan, she speaks the language, but everything she understand and everything she believes is entirely in tune with the audience. Her determination to identify one man, Sailor, the victim, out of the thousands of unnamed, unclaimed dead, is futile, and compels the audience into re-evaluating their own perception of what is right and wrong in this situation. Even when Anil solves the case, when she uncovers a conspiracy, when she goes to her superiors at the United Nations, they do nothing. They cannot do anything. So they do nothing.

This perception of truth, grounded into our empirical understanding, is what bred that ol' cliche of the normal kid sucked into a fantasy world. We need an anchor, we need a channel through which we can view what is foreign to us. In situations such as the dystopian trend, this anchor point, this common thread to the audience, was the age of the protagonist and the familial devotion, not to mention that sense of community against a figure of injustice (something which most of its readers could most certainly relate to). This is what we understand, this is how we gauge our sentiments, values, against the course of the novel itself.

In relation to how we forge our connection to characters, that development of identity is pivotal. The authenticity, this connection to our own true feelings, resonates in the facts of our characters. Anil adheres to the themes of truth and justice in traditional crime conventions, with her career as an anthropologist, delving into facts, but the depth of her character, as a crusader for truth, as a determined, moral person, is only conveyed through the events.

If you've managed to extract anything from me besides "anskgnals omfg igbas;ignas;gna;slmgh" about the Avengers, you'll know this scene made my skin crawl. I'll cover it in its own series, but for argument's purpose: this idea of theme, and in the Avengers, it falls into the idea of confronting one's regrets, one's fears and shortcomings, beautifully crafts our characters, particularly our newer, once-smaller ones. The ability of Black Widow to transcend the conventions of the genre (you know, the damsel in distress, the tough chick who cracks under threat) not only allows the audience to connect with her, but also uncovers thousands of words of dialogue about her character.

Loki threatens to let the Black Widow's bunk buddy secret lover friend, Hawkeye (who is under his strange, Norse alien brainwashing control) kill her "slowly, intimately". The truth of this genre is that the theme only applies to the "favourites" - you know, the headliners, the ones with their own franchises. However, (and this is why I would sacrifice virgins to the almighty Whedon on a makeshift Incan temple) Black Widow operates within gender paradigms, allowing the audience to move with her, to feel with her. In Loki's exploitation of her past, the facts ambiguous but just enough, we watch as her body reacts, a vulnerable, small form that is all she has - she's not a super soldier, she has no armour, she isn't a god. But, when we discover that she's playing him, that every motion has been purposeful, it challenges our perception of how our heroines act, it challenges our perception of this justice, this hero figure. One's fears, one's shortcomings - we've seen other characters demonstrate how they can impede a character, but we see through Black Widow that they can be manipulated, and they can be useful.

You can allude to your theme, even let your characters play with it. In Anil's Ghost, our foil to the detective - Sarath - constantly speaks about truth. "The truth can be like a flame against a lake of petrol". He continually berates Anil for her steadfast, futile pursuit of Westernised truth. She represents the view that mysteries can be unravelled and justice prevail, and this outlook changes over time.

Use your themes to spur growth in your characters, tie them to your characters so that they have to kick and writhe to get away, to transcend beyond. Accept your genre's conventions - and in YA, a multigenre category, there are so many, and let your themes direct your subversions. When you read books or watch movies, try and spot where directors have done exactly that, or where they could have. Interweave your themes, play with them. Crime, for example, usually looks at good overcoming evil, at restoring order, at exploring human nature and the perverted world, and instinctive justice versus tarnished justice.

Just think about those themes for a minute, and try and relate them to TV shows, to film and books you've read. Now, try and make a list of the themes in your own work. Make a physical list. Now make another list, or branch off or Buzzan mindmap or whatever, and determine how you could further the complexity of your setting, your plot, your characters, your backstory, through exploring these themes.

Now, I'd love to hear what you guys think! Drop me a comment below. How have you approached themes in your work? What themes do you think resonate the best in the books you've read? How about in YA - do you think themes are too prominent, too simple, or not taken seriously enough? Or, conversely, are themes overrated?

Let me know!


  1. I really enjoy discovering the themes in my manuscripts. One that seems to weave itself into most of mine is young women discovering their inner strengths. I think themes, done well and not overly-emphasized, really enrich a story.


  2. @Debbie Maxwell Allen
    Oh, definitely! It's one of my favourite parts of revision - finding and enhancing my themes.

    I think the trick is to not make them overt, but to not hide them so they're undetectable. Make it a winnable game that, when they stumble across them, makes your reader feel more depth.


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