I am trying to expand the depth of my writing beyond simple storytelling. Although my previous novel was an action/adventure, I realized it has a deeper point than entertainment. Dean Koontz offers this definition of a theme:

“Theme is a statement, or series of related observations, about some aspect of the human condition, interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author.”

I have read others suggesting that themes covey a message about the story's plot.

When we refer to the theme of a book, we are talking about a universal idea, lesson, or message that stretches through the entire story https://www.thoughtco.com/common-book-themes-1857647

But I agree with Mark Baker of SE:

Theme is not necessarily a message. It is more the thing that you are exploring. If the theme is love, for instance, you don't have to take a position on love, you don't have to have a covert message, like "love hurts" or "love sucks". The theme is love simply because the story is about love, is an exploration of what love it like. Does a story necessarily need a theme?

This was touched upon by a recent post from SE:

In the Tales of Huckleberry Finn, did you know that what's-his-face didn't care whether the man he'd come to tell his master set him free was freed? Think about it for a second. A boy is told that a runaway slave is set free, and doesn't have to run any more. And instead of telling him, he pretends to help him run further and further away, coming up with ever-increasingly elaborate plans to keep him safe, making himself the hero. But it's never stated. In fact, most people don't ever realize that's what happened (be honest, can you tell me the name of the boy in question here?). So the theme of physical slavery turns into a theme of mental slavery (he thinks he's still a slave, and continues running from it), showing the the very concept of slavery is all in your mind. How do I include a powerful theme in my story without making it blatantly obvious?

Nicely stated and it touches upon my question. Can the theme be so hidden that it is easily overlooked by even the casual reader. I think of the 2001: A Space Odyssey “Star Gate” light show in the final segment of the film where even Kubrick left the 'meaning' open to the viewer. https://movies.stackexchange.com/questions/69424/meaning-of-the-final-room-in-2001-a-space-odyssey/69438

I want the attentive reader to recognize the irony of my story without being told. So my question is: Do the characters or even the narrator have to understand that there is an underlying theme of the story?

6 Answers 6


Do the characters or even the narrator have to understand that there is an underlying theme of the story?

I think obviously not; neither the characters or narrator need to know the theme.

Many books we feel to be "good" do have themes, either statements or topics, and the self-reinforcing nature of the different sub-plots (all variations on the theme) resonate with us readers even if we don't realize it consciously.

That is essentially the value of having a theme (message or topic), this resonance between character arcs, sub-plot variations, etc, instead of a stew of different character arcs with different kinds of goals. e.g. It helps if everybody is essentially seeking some aspect of love, instead of the myriad other goals they might have.


Theme is a structural aspect of your writing, so it would ordinarily never be explicitly available to your characters --except in a post-modernist novel where they are aware they are fictional. Similarly, as a structural element, it should generally not call undue attention to itself. The reader should be able to enjoy the work perfectly well in complete ignorance of the theme.

That being the case, what is the purpose of theme, if not to call attention to itself? Like other structural elements, it is there to help you craft an enjoyable (meaningful, significant, immersive) reading experience that feels satisfying to the reader. Without a theme, a book can feel random, meaningless, self-indulgent, or like a waste of time. A successful theme binds the disparate elements of your book together into a satisfying whole.

Your characters and/or narrator don't necessarily need to be entirely forbidden from discussing the topic that composes your theme, but you'll want to be judicious about this. Like other structural elements, when theme is too often foregrounded, it can seem clumsy, strident and forced. A light sprinkling of explicit references can help the reader conceptualize your story without overly damaging their suspension of disbelief.

  • What an excellent answer. The theme in question is how hubris often results in a fall. Combine hubris with high end science and I think you can understand why I wish to keep it hidden. One man's utopia may be another man's dystopia. My goal is to have the reader decide for themselves how they view near future technological developments. Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 21:56

I'm not sure.

Is the narrator of "All Quiet on the Western Front" aware of the themes of the story? He is very much aware of the horror and the tragedy of the war, and of how much it has changed him, but is he aware of how senseless and futile parts of it were? Like his own death? Is his awareness of the horror and the tragedy similar to the awareness of the reader?

Tevye the Dairyman is very definitely not aware of how his thinking himself smarter than he really is and his inability to notice what's going on around him cause his daughters' misfortunes. Nor is Don Quixote aware of being a parody.

On the other hand, Tolkien's characters explicitly talk about various themes in the "Lord of the Rings" (sometimes you cannot really come home, small people are capable of great deeds, etc.) As does Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago.

The writer should know what it is they're writing. But the characters and the narrator can be as aware or unaware as serves the writer's goals, I think.

  • Having a character explore theme is a tool the author can use to illuminate theme.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 23:51

Yes, it is fine for the characters to be unaware of theme.

Jack London's Call of the Wild had clear themes. The animals were likely not aware of them. Orwell's Animal Farm.

It took me, the author, a while to identify the themes of my own story. I found them, with some thought. They rang true to me and I understood better why I wrote the story. The knowledge didn't change the story. The themes were there whether I knew it or not. However, knowing them, I can use the knowledge to sharpen the story if I choose.

If I, as an author, am less than clear on my own theme, and if there is a human trait to tell story without prioritizing theme, then it is fine for the characters to be less aware of theme.

If you assign a story, say, Lord of the Flies, to a high school class - And ask students to identify theme. You will have many answers. Some require more thought and may in fact fall 'wrong.' But many will be legitimate and backed by evidence and argument and writing.

The characters' jobs is to be true to themselves. Don't give them extra work. It will fall flat.

A good story will have theme. Identifying your themes is a good exercise and gives you a tool to improve upon your writing.

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    After reviewing my first novel, I discovered that I had unconsciously written a unifying theme. I now hope to consciously use that theme as a guide for the sequel instead on simply writing a plot involving a series of character arcs. Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 12:48

I think it's acceptable to have the theme hidden from the author. Theme often connotes meaning, which in any form of art is subjective to the viewer. So if the author doesn't know what the theme is, there's no need for the characters to know.

Further, when the theme is obvious to the characters the literary work is often in danger of becoming pedantic.

Theme is for critics and book clubs. Write a good story first and worry about what it means only if you're writing with the intent to persuade; and if you do write with the intent to persuade you must be first and foremost entertaining.

  • Very good points. I consider my novel as experimental literature. It explains the principles of epidemiology using a fictional pandemic. Most pandemic novels end as slate wipers or with apocalyptic dystopias. I am trying to teach that pandemics are not as most portray, but they can be devastating nonetheless. World economies may collapse and health care organizations clog and slow to a crawl as bureaucracies mismanage the emerging social chaos. My theme is nearly the same as the old comic, Pogo. 'We have met the enemy and he is us wearing a labcoat.' Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 13:06

Sometimes it is fine, and sometimes it is not. The same theme can be exemplified, though differently. by a character's ignorance, or by a character's knowledge.

In Sinclair Lewis's Babbit, the story is about Babbit's failure to realize the limits and weaknesses of his society, his position in life, and his thoughts. Obviously, if he does notice, the entire story would change.

Likewise, a story about a young man's growing up and learning his contempt for his society is rash would require his knowledge, and a story about his blind contempt bringing disaster would require his ignorance (unless some insight at the end benefits the tale).

Obviously, sometimes it is a benefit for one character to figure it out, and the others to remain blind. The character's insight illuminates the others' blindness, and gives contrasting aspects of the theme.

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