Repeat, Recapitulate, Revision: What Patterns Can Be Seen In A Writer’s Work? (Spiritwalker Monday 14)

Often an author is the wrong person to ask when a reader has a question about that author’s work. This is one reason I find conversations between readers so illuminating, as people throw ideas and interpretations back and forth about what they saw or did not see in a particular piece of fiction (or other art).

It is a truism that every reaction to a piece of art will be unique to the individual. One of the things I most love about the reading experience both as a reader–and as a writer listening to what readers have to say–is this diversity of reaction.

Reader A may pick up on a clever allusion that I intended while Reader B may draw a comparison or see thematic content that never once occurred to me as I was writing. Likewise if I am discussing with another reader a book that I as a reader loved or hated, we may both have loved–or hated–it but for different reasons or for similar reasons or we may disagree entirely and stand on opposite shores of love and hate.

For me that makes the act of reading not only a creative act but also (and perhaps more importantly) an act of creating a relationship with a book, for good, for bad, for indifference, for ambivalence, for whatever complex feelings the book may engender in you.

I can’t recall who said it but somewhere somewhen a writer opined (and I paraphrase) that “each writer has only one story that they tell over and over again, and if they are lucky, it is a big story” (that is, one with lots of room for internal variation rather than one that is all too clearly repetitive).

Now I don’t buy that statement but I do think each writer (and any artist) brings to the creative table a unique set of variables, their personality, their life experience, their knowledge, their cultural background, their individual way of looking at the world, their interests, their passions, their intensity, their rawness or their smoothness, their flaws and strengths, and so on.

If a reader reads along the career of a writer then certain patterns, certain ways of approaching the creative vision, certain familiar themes or narrative quirks or a particular way of using voice may emerge as characteristic of that writer’s work. Certain subjects or questions or concerns or fixations or narrative structures or prose styles may come up in more than one project. Or maybe it’s just that there is always a Manic Pixie Dream Girl Variant in one writer’s work and a sarcastic cynical misanthrope in another.

So here is a great question asked of me by a reader on Facebook:

MK asked:

ok. so I have a question I’ve always wanted to ask you. I’m just not sure if I can ask it properly… well, anyway here it comes: how come you’ve written so many, so different books starring the same guy?? because for me Bakhtiian, Bulkezu and Anji are like different studies of the same person. so, am I right or is it only my imagination??


Perhaps I am the wrong person to answer the question. As mentioned above, the author isn’t always the right person to talk about their own work.

My answer would be No, but also Yes.

Yes, all three of the characters mentioned are leaders from steppe nomad nations with expansionist tendencies. [My children have in the past teased me about having to put steppe nomads in all my projects.]

No, I don’t see the three characters as the same person at all. I see them as individuals who have distinct personalities and distinct plot arcs. If any one of them were (as it were) put into the place of one of the others in the other book(s), the plot would fall out very differently because that individual would deal in an entirely unique way with the circumstances and parameters they are presented with. They each have different goals and different ways of reaching those goals and of interacting with other people as allies or obstacles.

Also, as it happens, because I used 9th and 10th century European history as the inspiration for Crown of Stars, Bulkezu and his plot arc are adaptations of actual invasions into Eastern Europe by steppe nations whose names are not commonly known to us now because they did not linger in the more commonly-known historical imagination the way the Huns and Mongols have done.


Yes, the three characters do have similarities. I would even go so far as to say that in some ways Bulkezu and Anji were a way for me to comment on and think about the Jaran books and the way I characterized and portrayed Bakhtiian as the hero.

People sometimes say that science fiction and fantasy is a genre in conversation with itself. I think there is truth to that, and I know that I certainly examine, investigate, interrogate, celebrate, and confront elements of the genre through my own writing.

In addition, however, I am always in conversation with myself about my earlier work.

My views are not static.

There are plot elements or characters or details I wrote twenty years ago that I would not write now (and a few that I wish I had written differently). As I have more time in the world I may begin to look at an idea from a different angle than I did before simply because my perspective has shifted or because I now see a broader vista or around corners that used to block my vision. Perhaps I reach a point where I believe I have the chops to write something in a more challenging way that I wasn’t able to pull off before.

My development as a writer happens in my fiction over time and through projects. It reflects my development as a human being. I hope I have learned, and that any experience and sensitivity and compassion and knowledge I have gained can more fully inform what I write as I continue to write.

As readers and writers, what do you see when you consider patterns and repetition in any given writer’s work? In your own?

As readers are you aware of small and large, subtle or obvious, ways in which writers have created a body of work that has something in common with itself as a whole piece–that is, not just as discrete works but as a larger tapestry of a creative vision? How do you reflect on your own changing creative vision?

11 thoughts on “Repeat, Recapitulate, Revision: What Patterns Can Be Seen In A Writer’s Work? (Spiritwalker Monday 14)

  1. As readers and writers, what do you see when you consider patterns and repetition in any given writer’s work? In your own?

    As readers are you aware of small and large, subtle or obvious, ways in which writers have created a body of work that has something in common with itself as a whole piece–that is, not just as discrete works but as a larger tapestry of a creative vision? How do you reflect on your own changing creative vision?

    I do notice if a writer uses similar characters, settings, motifs and ideas over time. This becomes especially evident if a writer becomes known for this sort of thing. Judith Tarr and her horses. Bujold seems to have a fascination with broken protagonists. Sanderson and his magic systems. And so on. I don’t mind repetition if the repeats rhyme, if you know what I mean.

  2. “I don’t mind repetition if the repeats rhyme, if you know what I mean.”

    That’s a good way of phrasing it — if I am interpreting you correctly, then I would say that they aren’t the same but related, and thus in a way a part of a larger whole.

  3. A friend of mine, who has read most of my work since I started writing a few years back, pointed out a particular theme that my characters’ struggles seem to take. According to him, I may have daddy issues. I’ve been careful to watch out for that sort of thing since then.

  4. Yes. I think sometimes we (as the writer) may not be able to see deeper levels of patterns emerging in the work because we’re not entirely aware of how much we examine or poke at them.

  5. As someone who has a whole lot of writing in the metaphorical “scraps drawer” and not a whole lot “finished” I certainly see constellations of repeated themes, character types, plot elements emerge in my writing. In some ways it is an interesting insight into my own subconscious, into what appears to be most “important” to me to write. Some of it seems to be trying out the same thing again and again because I haven’t yet gotten it “right.” Other times I want to explore some similar element from rather different angles.

    I certainly see authors I know and love have these same sorts of patterns. The ones who have some recurrent themes or elements (as mentioned above: you, Sanderson, etc.), it is often more of a point of interest than a distraction. Others become repetitive and formulaic, and that’s where I see the danger.

    So I find myself looking at all these partial projects of my own with an eye to caution. I look at, say, three stories with rather different settings but reminiscent main characters and a strikingly similar pivotal scene early in the story and I think “well, these are too close, I can probably only write _one_ of them. So, which is the richest, the most nuanced? Which is it the heart of the story I want to tell about these elements? Or is there another direction I can take one of these? Does it really _need_ all those elements it has in common with the others?”

    Other repetitions I see in my own work I see no problems with. For instance, a lot of my characters make things with their hands, sometimes professionally, sometimes more informally. When I read your post on “Why Cat Sews” I thought: “Wow, yes.” Other writers may spend more time describing the food or the fashions than I do; I think I’ve looked at my work and figured that there’s just going to be more handcrafts than usual, and I’m ok with that. It doesn’t take over the story. But I’m frequently writing about people in cultures where having idle hands would be a waste. So, they get things to do with their hands. Sometimes it works into the plot, sometimes it gives insights into the characters. But it’s often there.

    I do see larger thematic patterns in my work too. And I know that even if I end up publishing many of these books, my hypothetical future readers may or may not see the same patterns I do. I know with authors I read, I am in fact drawn back to authors who not only write well, but seem interested in the same sorts of questions I am.

  6. I agree; I think we can’t help but keep circling around certain interests and passions and obsessions — or as you say “trying until we get them right.”

    One of the elements of “taste” for me is exactly what you mention: writers who are “interested in the same sorts of questions I am.” When I hit a writer–whoever good they may be–who is exploring things I don’t have much interest in, or little interest in poking at from that direction–then their work often doesn’t work for me regardless of its quality.

  7. I haven’t successfully written fiction yet (although I do write non-fiction), so where I deal with themes, motifs, and the like the most often is within my visual art. And I do see self-similar ideas recur as part of a larger, complex worldview.

    Where Paul says “repetition if the repeats rhyme”, I would say “fractal”.

  8. I really like the idea of fractals as a way of describing writerly themes and/or patterns. That makes a lot of sense to me. There are base similarities (or repeated concerns) but they aren’t the same thing each time.

  9. Hi would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working
    with? I’m planning to start my own blog in the near
    future but I’m having a tough time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.

    The reason I ask is because your design seems different then most blogs and I’m
    looking for something completely unique. P.S Apologies
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  10. This is WordPress. They have a number of free themes to choose from, which can change up the look a little.

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