There is no story without a theme. Even when written without anything prepared in terms of a message, a story will always give people things to think about and messages drawn from how the story was set up and how it was resolved (if at all).
So I don't think that when critics complain that the story had no theme they are being clear with the complaint: I believe that either the theme is confusing or it isn't clear or it simply has been botched. How is a theme botched?
I would suggest that it's when the story sets up one theme which then the resolution or something in the resolution undermines it. For example, a story that seeks to show women as empowered, strong individuals with a personality might botch the theme if the women characters are constantly seeking to validate themselves or are constantly antagonistic against men (which implies insecurity). Bonus points if in order to upstage the women the story surrounds them with caricatures of men rather than actual male characters.
If that doesn't occur, then the story has a theme, either clear or hidden somewhere within it. It could be something as simple as “good always triumphs” or “friendship always wins”. Or it could be something quite complicated, such as a simple thing (e.g. “war is hell”) being a frame for a lot more nuanced relevant themes (e.g. “grief manifests in many forms” or “it's not so easy to tell who is evil and who is not” or explore abuse vs trauma, and more).
Even stories written for pleasure (or self pleasure?) have themes: self-insert fanfiction usually will have the theme of “the OC that is the new MC is awesome in every way and the IP's MC loves them.” It may not be a nuanced theme, but it is a theme!
In short, the theme is whatever we're exploring as creators in our stories. Even if we aren't setting out to have a theme, it just is born together with the story as soon as we've created the characters and plot.
So what is your story's theme?
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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Jan. 15, 2022
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