Any experienced writer will tell you that literary themes can be varied and complex – but there are some themes in literature that appear so often they’re now instantly identifiable.
‘In every bit of honest writing in the world, there is a base theme.’ – John Steinbeck https://t.co/SI0a6bv22p
— The Writers’ Academy (@WritersatRandom) 9 October 2017
Yet for something so apparently crucial to the understanding of a book, people are often still a bit unclear as to what ‘theme’ actually is. Is it a story’s message? The imagery it uses? The font?
In this post, we’ll first look at what is meant by ‘theme’ in literature, and then go through some of the most common literary themes to help you understand what they are, and how they’re used.
What is Theme in Literature?
To put it simply, the theme of a book is the main topic (or topics) at the center of the story. If a book’s ‘plot’ is said to be the events that happen within it, then by comparison the ‘theme’ is what the book is ‘about’.
To use the most famous of examples: the plot of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is two young lovers from feuding families falling in love, and ultimately dying as the result of some tragic and unfortunate events.
Some of the major themes of the story could therefore be described as Love, Fate and Family (among many others).
Another common mistake is to limit the definition of theme to ‘the moral of the story’. The difference is that while a moral must be a specific lesson or point that the author is said to be making, a theme can be more general – an idea or topic that reappears throughout a story. A moral can be a theme, but a theme doesn’t have to be a moral.
Some of the Most Common Examples of Themes in Literature
Crime doesn’t pay
The notion that “crime doesn’t’ pay” is such a common theme in literature that it’s almost a cliché. The concept is incredibly simple – all criminals will get their comeuppance, and the law-abiding will be rewarded.
Not just limited to crime writing, this can also apply to any work of literature where a character’s bad deeds come back to haunt them – it’s essentially the same as saying “you reap what you sow”.
Own worst enemy
Characters being “their own worst enemy” – battling personal demons or having internal conflicts – is so widespread that it’s often still a feature of books where the “main theme” is something else entirely.
It’s very common for characters to be written as having a tragic personality flaw, which they must either overcome or which causes their downfall.
Coming of age
It could be argued that the “coming of age” tale – where the protagonist is forced to progress from youth to adulthood – is actually its own genre..
The cause of this progression can vary greatly, but the end result is generally the same – the character is forever changed by their experiences, or achieves significant personal growth.
Famous examples: J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”, Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner”, Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”
The inevitability or tragedy of death is a literary theme found in all manner of novels – whether it’s as the main focus, or through the demise of a major character.
This can be approached from many different angles: exploring the mystery of death, a futile attempt to escape it, characters faced with their own mortality, or dealing with grief and loss.
Overcoming the odds
Usually described as “feel-good” novels, works with this theme portray a character’s triumph in the face of adversity, as they overcome some seemingly insurmountable obstacle or challenge.
Once again, the obstacle itself can be any number of things – a sporting challenge, difficult circumstances, a threatening villain etc. – but the key element is that the protagonist rises up to achieve something that appeared impossible.
Money makes the world go round. Money is power. Money is the root of all evil. Money can’t buy happiness.
You get the point: capitalism is the foundation of much of western society, so it makes sense that it would be equally prominent in works of fiction that comment on that society.
While science-fiction is the most natural fit for exploring the theme of technology, it remains a popular topic in a wide range of different genres.
Probably the most popular variant of this is the concept of “Man vs. machine” or any similar story that portrays technological advancement as the cause of mankind’s ultimate doom.
Love conquers all
Perhaps the only literary theme more commonly explored than death is love. It’s a theme which spans almost every genre, and is featured in more literary works than not.
While the romance genre is enduringly popular, love is most commonly weaved in among other more prominent themes. “Love conquers all” refers more specifically to instances where a character’s love for someone motivates them to overcome an obstacle, resolving the story.
Humanity’s fascination with the concept of God takes the fore in many works of fiction.
A highly complex theme, the ways in which religion can be explored in literature are too many to list, but often the focus is on questions of existence, sin and the afterlife.
Humanity vs. nature
Works with this literary theme will explore humankind’s struggle against either the natural world (adverse weather, animals, environment), or against its own “human nature”.
In both cases, books with this theme often feature a struggle for survival, and a reminder of how fragile mankind really is.
Famous examples include: Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, Peter Benchley “Jaws”, Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”
The individual vs. society
The “individual vs. society” literary theme usually centers on a protagonist who is an outsider from the society in which they live. Pressured to conform with what is expected of them, the character either rebels or struggles to fit in.
These characters are often depicted as martyrs, sacrificing themselves for what they believe in, in the face of massive societal opposition.
We used the example of Romeo and Juliet already, and that should give you a pretty good idea of how complex the theme of family can get.
Family loyalty; the effects of our upbringings; family rivalries – there’s a lot of angles writers can explore when it comes to family ties. And they do, time and time again.
Good vs. evil
Maybe the most simple (and therefore popular) set-up for a tale is the classic theme of good vs. evil. Novels with this theme will feature a righteous and courageous hero taking on a villain who is in some way immoral or corrupt.
In the vast majority of cases, good triumphs over evil (the feel-good factor at play again) – but there are plenty of more pessimistic works of literature in which evil prevails.
War: what is it good for? It’s a question that’s been raised by countless authors over the years, and like any other theme it’s produced a variety of different takes on the subject.
Some tales focus on the glory or necessity of war and the bravery of those fighting in it; others still choose to highlight the tragedy, pain and horror that inevitably follows when men take up arms against one another.
More Writing Resources
There are, of course, an endless amount of potential themes in literature, but we’ve tried to list those that appear most often, or that tend to contain lots of smaller ‘sub-themes’ within them.
For more writing resources, check out our Writing 101 page – where you’ll find eBooks, webinars and articles on the craft of creative writing.
We’d love to know what you think too. Are there any other major themes we should add to the list? Have any favourite examples of these themes or any others? Let us know below.
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