Writer Unboxed had a really good post today about writing to answer your central question. In it, the author discusses the realization she had while writing her first draft that she was really trying to answer a very big question about why bad things happen, and argues that we all have central questions we are trying to address in our work.
Perhaps not all of us do, but I think a central question or theme is what pushes an enjoyable tale into one I remember for years to come. The books that focus on a central question or theme are the ones that focus on the human condition, allowing the reader to better connect with the characters while engaging their minds in analyzing both the story and the world at large. And for the writer, it provides a point around which to build everything else in the story. Of course, that doesn't mean the writer sets out to answer that question; often there's little more than a story idea, and as plot elements begin to coalesce, the question begins to emerge and shape the events and the characters' decisions. In fact, I think it's probably dangerous to set out with the express purpose of answering a particular question, because it increases the temptation to "make" the story go a certain way, no matter how unnatural, in order to arrive at the desired conclusion. The writer may try to dictate the answer rather than explore the theme. Even worse, the writer might end up sounding preachy or didactic, and unless the story is written for a very narrow audience, this may turn off more readers than it will inspire to think.
Still, thinking back, I realize the best manuscripts I've written are those where a question arose early on and I got to explore the theme through the characters, rather than the ones where I just thought plot elements x and y and z would be cool together:
Manuscript 1: Genetically-engineered human weapon teams up with war refugee in exile. Themes/questions explored: forgiveness, the age of personal responsibility for one's actions, and when (if ever) it is acceptable to kill.
Manuscripts 2 and 3: Had some minor questions in regard to character arcs, but not for the main character, and there was no overarching theme or question. These manuscripts are indefinite trunk novels.
Manuscript 4: Mercenary-ish guy escorts a nun who's resistant to a world-wide plague to a group of scientists. Themes explored: accepting one's past and present after one's dreams are crushed, accepting one's purpose/vocation.
Manuscript 5 (in progress): Humans are invited to make an expedition to an alien planet, only to find that nobody's home when they get there. Themes explored: Memory and the desire to be remembered.
What about you? What are the central questions of your writing? Or what books have stuck with you because of their approach to a central question? Would they have done so if they'd focused less on that?
Also: Woo! 100th post! I cleaned up and simplified my layout to celebrate. Let me know what you think!