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

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

Understanding of theme will help you understand and produce great writing. Learn about theme definition in literature, and common themes in literature, with copious theme examples.

Why do some stories keep you coming back for more? Compelling characters and authentic dialogue, as well as heart-stopping action scenes and heart-breaking romances, all play a role.

While the best stories of all time contain a combination of these elements, one ingredient stands out above the rest, catapulting works from commercial stardom to critical success and classic status: a strong literary theme.

What is a Literary Theme?

theme definition literature

A literary theme is a central idea or underlying meaning explored by a writer in a novel, short story, or other work of literature.

A story’s theme can be communicated through characters, setting, dialogue, plot, or a combination of all of these elements.

Simpler stories may have a moral or message, such as “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The central theme of more complex stories is typically a more open-ended exploration of some fundamental aspect of society or humanity.

6 Common Literary Themes

The best literary themes investigate human nature on a broad scale. As a result, it’s not surprising that multiple books may share the same central idea.

Each of the popular theme examples below reveals the human condition and provides readers with food for thought long after the story is over.

The following are six common literary themes:

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 conflict between light and darkness, altruism and antagonism, and the theme of good versus evil predates even Biblical times.

In a story about good triumphing over evil, two characters may be pitted directly against each other, as in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, or the main character may be pitted against society as a whole, as in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Furthermore, the theme of good versus evil may be explored through the characters’ external actions and dialogue, as well as their internal struggle to do the right thing when faced with temptation.

Literary Theme 2: Love

As in life, love is one of the most universal themes in literature. Indeed, the theme of love pervades many of the stories we’ve discussed thus far.

Love can be a positive force that inspires people to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, or it can be a toxic force that drives people insane or violent. As a literary theme, various flavors of love include:

1. Forbidden Love

In forbidden love stories, yearning and disapproval collide, with star-crossed lovers often hurtling towards a tragic end.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Ian McEwan’s Atonement are two examples.

2. Family Love

The costs or challenges of family loyalty are frequently explored in stories about the love between parents and children or siblings.

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper are two examples.

3. Unrequited Love

The agony of loving someone who does not return your feelings is a common theme in literature.

Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises are two examples.

4. Friendship

The ability of friendship to carry people through difficult times and change them for the better or for the worse is a common theme in young adult literature.

Stephen King’s The Body (adapted into the film Stand By Me) and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are two examples.

Literary Theme 3: Redemption

Failures or tragedies set the stage for a sad story, but it doesn’t have to end that way: in books with redemption as a central theme, characters recognize their mistakes and strive to right the wrongs they’ve done, making for an uplifting story.

Redeeming stories frequently involve a reformed character sacrificing his or her freedom or life.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo are two stories that explore redemption.

Literary Theme 4: Courage and Perseverance

The triumph of the human spirit over adversity is a popular theme in literature, film, and everyday life.

Characters in stories about courage face adversity or face impossible odds, but they persevere through sheer determination, grit, and gall.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden is two stories with courage as a central theme.

Literary Theme 5: Coming of Age

A classic coming-of-age story, also known as a bildungsroman, follows one or more characters as they mature into adulthood.

Before reaching maturity, these characters may experience everything from a loss of innocence to an awakening or self-awareness.

Coming-of-age stories are common in memoirs, as well as in young adult literature.

Coming of age is a central theme in many books, including 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

The theme of revenge, a common plot in literature, creates a conflict between one character and his or her enemies as he or she travels to avenge wrongs done to them.

A revenge story may depict the trials that a character must go through in order to achieve their vengeance or it may explore the human cost and moral quandaries that come with pursuing vengeance in the first place.

Revenge is a central theme in many stories, including The Iliad by Homer, Carrie by Stephen King, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.


From a literary angle, a theme is defined as a central message embedded in a piece of writing, be it drama, prose, or poetry. It is the main focus of literature work.

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