Why do we write? We write to create. To make something out of nothing (well, not out of nothing, but regardless). I spoke about legacy last week.
When I write, I create meaning, and that is perhaps a very important thing to note. Meaning is the point behind the whole affair. You’ve probably heard people say that you shouldn’t write something because of what sells, but rather write something that you want to write. Okay, this is mainly because by the time you finished your vampire book, vampires will be out of fashion, replaced by something else. But I think it’s worth looking at from another perspective.
Firstly, I read somewhere (more than one place actually; I think it was Justine Musk and David Baboulene) that stories originated as mediums from which to learn. Say if caveman A ran away from a sabretooth tiger and then told caveman B what happened, i.e. how he got away, he is essentially told B a story while teaching him something. Next time B sees a sabretooth tiger, he’ll know what to do. When you look at age-old stories and whatnot, you will see the same pattern. For example, the boy who cried wolf. There, at the end of the story, you grasp the moral of the story, therefore learning a lesson in a fun way (this makes it more accessible to kids). You can even say that the theme of the boy who cried wolf is that if you lie all the time, people will not believe you when you tell the truth. Most stories these days do not have such explicit messages or morals to share (since people these days really hate being preached to) but each contains something.
If you write a vampire story with a tried-and-trusted plot line, you are not creating meaning (this is not necessarily true – it’s about your motivation and whatnot, but you get what I mean), you are simply putting words together because you know people like to read that.
If you remember my post on structure, this is a good example. If you use only structure, you aren’t crafting meaning. If you deform your story using structure, you’re deforming meaning.
My point is this: When you write something, you should be putting down words that mean something to you (and thus to others). There doesn’t have to be a lesson. It can be a story that represents something that you experienced. Even simpler, it can take a look at how a difficult decision could be made. Holly Lisle mentioned somewhere that when you start a story, find something that matters to you and write about it. Writing a story can answer a question that you are wondering about. When you let characters make MEANINGFUL decisions, you are in fact testing out scenarios of different approaches to the decision and (if you get other people to read it) showing other people how they could (or should) react in such a situation.
Meaning is what makes stories interesting. When your characters make no-brainer decisions, it does not become interesting. It is only when a character faces a difficult decision that the readers will sit forward in their seats (as if eager to learn from your hero) to see how he will react.
In the end, a story has to matter, in some form or another. If it means something to you and no one else gets it, that fine too (though it is pretty much guaranteed that someone out there will agree with you and see what you put inside). As long as it matters to someone (preferably, you should be one of these).
Should there be meaning in fiction? Or is meaning simply a subjective take on a story?