Does Genre Fiction Need a Theme?

I’ve read and heard a lot of advice to writers over the years, and the word “theme” has cropped up a number of times. It was listed, for example, among the things that should be found in the first two pages of your story. Really? I mean, I’ve always associate the idea of having a theme with fiction of the more literary sort, but I write genre fiction. I kept wondering; does genre fiction need to have a theme?

I think the short answer is no. All genre fiction has to do to be successful with readers is to meet the expectations of the sub-group of readers who read books of that particular genre. And if those readers don’t expect a theme, then you don’t need to have one. A mystery is a story-puzzle wrapped around some hopefully interesting characters. Theme needed? No. A romance doesn’t need any other theme besides the obvious one of romantic love that defines the genre. Fantasy readers expect to be transported beyond the boundaries of their mundane existence, and science fiction readers are looking for a provocative “what if” to bend their minds. Conclusion? Genre stories don’t need no stinkin’ theme!

So why am I writing this? Because I’m a natural-born worry-wart and my brain wouldn’t put the idea down. And the thing is, when I took a hard look at my seven-book fantasy series, The Nagaro Chronicle, with the theme-idea in mind, darned if I didn’t find some! This, even though I hadn’t set out to put one in. The Chronicle follows its main character, Nagaro, across ten years of his life, and he’s a man with a destiny who doesn’t know it. Something had to drive the character, so I made sure there were things that mattered to him – things like honor and using his gifts to do good in the world – and these concepts became threads that are now integral to the character and his story. They run throughout the entire series. And I think the series is the better for it.

I’m not saying that having a theme turns my work into great literature, but it does provide a cohesiveness, perhaps a little more depth, and a feeling of enhanced meaning. It also contributes to the work’s unique flavor and finally gives me a nut-shell description that could help potential target readers identify with my work. When I tell them the series has themes of honor and altruism, I know it will resonate with some readers and I hope they’ll be more likely to buy that first book. Readers who don’t care for heroes who are too “nice” may also be motivated to steer clear – which reduces my risk of getting unenthusiastic reviews from folks who just aren’t part of my target audience.

I don’t think you can just slap a theme on top of an existing manuscript, or poke a few holes and try to insert one. Themes have to be organically part of the story. But if you see the seeds of a theme in your work as you’re writing it – or find one trying to emerge while doing revisions – I’m suggesting that you nurture it. And also that you find a way to work it into your cover blurb.

What do you think? Am I onto something, or off-base? Any genre works with themes that you can point to? Do they benefit from having one? How about your own work?

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11 Comments

  1. While I don’t think genre fiction needs to have a theme, it can certainly enhance the story. I find incorporating theme into my writing enhances characterization, kind of like what you mention in your post. Helps keep me consistent with my main character. Or at least I hope it does. 🙂

    Reply
    • Yeah, that’s how I was using it. I knew what my character “stood for,” and that kept him consistent as well as providing him with motivation. But it sounds like you were more consciously using a theme. I didn’t realize that was what I had until after the fact.

      Reply
      • “I didn’t realize that was what I had until after the fact.”—Which is one of the great things about writing!

      • Well, yes. It really did feel quite wonderful when I realized it. Still makes me wonder whether I could do it again, though.

  2. I think you are spot on, especially with “Themes have to be organically part of the story.” Even though I write literary fiction, my themes also tend to emerge rather than be something that I decide on beforehand (in fact, sometimes I need an outsider to tell me what the theme is). I think this approach leads to the most powerful thematic statements. It would take a much better writer than I to say, “I’m setting out to write a novel about the pitfalls of human desire,” without having any idea of characters or plot, and end up with something engaging.

    Reply
    • That’s really interesting, Audrey. Though it surprises me. I would have thought that you would plan a theme. Worrying about being able to execute what you plan is another matter, though. I’m often worried about whether I can write what I intend – make the scene have the right impact, or make the dialog accomplish what I want. I wonder if highly experienced writers have more confidence than that.

      Reply
  3. I’ve grappled with this question, too, among others, with respect to genre stories. In one WIP, I did try to decide on a theme as I was preparing a rough outline. We’ll see if it sticks when the story is actually written. In the current WIP, I can see where one has appeared more organically, much as you describe for your stories. I suspect for many genre readers, themes aren’t important. As long as the story and characters fit their expectations, I think a theme is a bonus, but not a requirement.

    “Character growth” is another idea that I wonder about for genre fiction, especially in series. How much can a character grow in one book when perhaps three, five, or twenty books will be written about him/her? I don’t see too many stars of mystery series changing much over their runs!

    Reply
    • Yeah, I’ve wondered about character growth too. Some people seem to believe that the main character has to undergo some major change – like they start out being cowardly and learn to be brave, or they start out a scumbag and redeem themselves. I was worried because my character didn’t do anything like that. Then someone else said that the character could change his world, rather than being changed by it, and I felt better because my character falls into that category. Honestly, though, I think that in genre fiction it’s enough that the character be well-developed and nuanced – not just a flat, cookie-cutter character. I don’t think something has to change radically in either the character or his world. I guess I think interesting things can happen without necessarily resulting in radical change.

      Reply
      • I really like that idea of a character “changing the world” in some way. That works so much better than “character growth” for the types of story I’m writing, which are all genre fiction. You’ve just eased some of my subconscious worries on that level. 🙂

        My feelings about “themes,” “character growth,” and “big concepts” have always been that they refer more to the realm of literary fiction than to most of the mysteries or sci-fi stories that I read. It was reassuring to read this post and see I’m not alone in that thought!

  4. Interesting post. I’ve been dabbling with the notion that i write two different types of genre (crime and women’s contemporary) and that both deal with the theme of betrayal. I think it is possible to start off with a theme (such as betrayal) and develop a book from there (be it literary, romance, crime, fantasy…).

    Reply
    • Interesting that you started with a theme in mind. I don’t think it’s bad to have one, obviously, but I would be afraid of inadvertently sounding “preachy” if I set out to write on my preferred themes. I think what I’m asking is, how do you keep it from feeling contrived if the theme precedes the story in your mind?

      Reply

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