Writing

Complete Guide to Literary Themes: Definition, Examples, and How to Create Literary Themes in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Mar 15, 2019 • 6 min read

Why do some stories draw you back again and again? Compelling characters and authentic dialogue play a role, as do heart-stopping action scenes and heart-rending romances. And while the greatest stories ever written have a mix of these elements, there is one ingredient that stands out above the rest, catapulting works from commercial stardom to critical success and classic status: a strong literary theme.

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What Is a Literary Theme?

A literary theme is the main idea or underlying meaning a writer explores in a novel, short story, or other literary work. The theme of a story can be conveyed using characters, setting, dialogue, plot, or a combination of all of these elements.

In simpler stories, the theme may be a moral or message: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In more complex stories, the central theme is typically a more open-ended exploration of some fundamental aspect of society or humanity.

6 Common Themes in Literature

The best literary themes explore human nature on a universal level. It’s no surprise, then, that multiple books may share the same central idea. Each of the following popular theme examples reveals the human condition and offers readers food for thought long after the story is finished.

Six common themes in literature are:

  1. Good vs. evil
  2. Love
  3. Redemption
  4. Courage and perseverance
  5. Coming of age
  6. Revenge

Literary Theme 1: Good vs. Evil

The classic battle between light and dark, altruism and antagonism, the theme of good versus evil stretches beyond even Biblical times. A story about good triumphing over evil may pit two characters directly against each other, as in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, or a main character against society at large, as in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

In addition, the theme of good versus evil may be explored through the external actions and dialogue of the characters, or via their internal struggle to do the right thing when faced with temptation.

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Literary Theme 2: Love

Love is one of the most universal themes in literature, as in life. In fact, the theme of love is underpins many of the stories we’ve discussed so far. Love can be a force for good that inspires people to sacrifice themselves for others, or a toxic force that drives people to madness or violence. Different flavors of love as a literary theme include:

  • Forbidden love. Yearning and disapproval collide in forbidden love stories, which often find star-crossed lovers hurtling towards a tragic fate. Examples include: Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare and Atonement by Ian McEwan.
  • Family love. Stories about the love between parents and children or siblings often explore the costs or challenges of family loyalty. Examples include: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.
  • Unrequited love. The pain of loving someone who does not return your affection is a frequent subject in literature. Examples include: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.
  • Friendship. The power of friendship to carry people through hard times and change them—whether for better or worse—is an especially common theme in young adult literature. Examples include: The Body by Stephen King (adapted into a film, Stand By Me) and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

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Literary Theme 3: Redemption

Failures or tragedies set the stage for a sad story, but it doesn’t have to end this way: in books that employ redemption as a central theme, characters see the errors of their ways and strive to right the wrongs they’ve committed, making for an uplifting tale. Stories of redemption often involve a reformed character sacrificing his or her freedom or life.

Examples of stories that explore redemption include A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

Literary Theme 4: Courage and Perseverance

The triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity is a hugely popular theme in literature, film, and real life. Characters in stories about courage endure difficult circumstances or impossible odds, persevering through sheer determination, grit, and gall.

Examples of stories with courage as their central theme include: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden.

Literary Theme 5: Coming of Age

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Also known as a bildungsroman, a classic coming-of-age story follows one or more characters during their journey of growing up into adulthood. These characters may experience everything from a loss of innocence, to an awakening or self-awareness before finally reaching maturity. While coming of age stories are popular in young adult literature, they’re also common in memoirs.

Examples of books that employ coming of age as a central theme include Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Literary Theme 6: Revenge

A common plot in literature, the theme of revenge sets up a conflict between one character and his or her enemies as he or she journeys to avenge wrongs done to them. A revenge story may depict the trials a character must endure in order to achieve their vengeance—or, explore the human cost and moral dilemmas around pursuing vengeance in the first place

Examples of stories that use revenge as their central theme include: The Iliad by Homer, Carrie by Stephen King, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

3 Ways to Create Literary Themes in Your Writing

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Incorporating a solid literary theme into your work won’t happen by accident, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly difficult, either. Whether you’re composing short stories, writing a novel, or working on a screenplay, incorporate the following literary devices to better convey the theme of your story. As you layer them in, they should be as subtle as the theme itself.

  1. Put your characters in conflict with one another. Most themes center on controversial ideas that are a source of conflict for human beings. By putting your characters in conflict, you’ll create more opportunities for actions, choices, and conversations that enable them, and your readers, to tackle your theme head on.
  2. Reinforce your theme with motifs. A motif is a recurring image or detail that highlights the central ideas in a story through repetition. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example, Gatsby’s constant, lavish parties emphasize the theme of excess, materialism, and the pursuit of the American dream. Use motif to shed additional light on the theme and also give readers a reminder of its existence.
  3. Represent your theme with symbols. Symbols are objects, characters, or settings that are used to represent something else (while, again, supporting the theme). A symbol may appear one time, or be present throughout the story. In The Great Gatsby, a green light symbolizes Gatsby’s dream for a better life with Daisy. In the beginning of the book, he reaches toward it; in the end, it seems unreachable.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Margaret Atwood, who is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass on the art of writing, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale provides insight into how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.

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