Do you have a favorite author? And if you do, have you noticed how often the same themes emerge in his or her work? Oh, the stories might be very different from one another, but if you stop to think about them, you'll most likely see similarities at the core of each one of them.
In my case, I often write about overcoming fear and coping with loss, as well as about forgiveness and compassion. And always, or very nearly always, my characters come out on top.
If you explore any given author's body of work, you can learn a great deal about him or her, because writers can't help but write about the things they fear and the things they value. On the fear side, they select--usually unconsciously-- situations they long to be able to control. The loss of a loved one is the most extreme example of this. It's unbearable to lose someone you love, but by fictionalizing such a loss, the writer has total control over the emotions and actions of the people left behind. The power that accompanies that control can be both reassuring and enlightening for the author, and by extension, for the reader as well.
When I'd finished writing my second book, Lovers and Strangers, one of my friends mentioned how odd it was that I wrote about a brave woman who traveled to the Amazon Jungle when I was so fearful of physical risk myself. I suddenly understood why I'd created Shawn Ryder: she was the woman I wished I could be. Writing about the scary situations she encountered gave me control over them. And there was an added bonus: as I wrote about Shawn, I actually became braver myself.
Writing about the things we value, though, can be a slippery slope. Writers need to be cautious not to pound the reader over the head with their agendas. The story itself needs to be most important, with any thematic message sneaking in through the back door so quietly that it resgisters in the heart of the reader rather than the head.
If you're a writer, have you thought about why you write what you write? And if you're a reader, how aware are you of themes in the stories of your favorite authors?