10 Most Common Literary Themes

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Literary themes can be varied and complex. However, there are a number of common literary themes so widely used that they’re now instantly and easily identifiable.

Whether you’re an avid reader or not, it’s likely that you’ll have come across every one of these literary themes in some form or another. Read on for our list of the ten most common literary themes.

Crime Doesn’t Pay
“What goes around comes around” – Justice being done to criminals is a prevailing theme in many works of literature.

The notion that “crime doesn’t’ pay” is such a common literary theme 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 limited only 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
Many literary characters are depicted as struggling with an internal conflict

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
The journey from adolescence to adulthood is a very common literary theme

It could be argued that the “coming of age” tale – wherein the protagonist is forced to progress from youth to adulthood – is actually its own genre of literature.

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 include: J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”, Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner”, Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

Most often employed as a plot device, death can be one of the most powerful literary themes when employed properly

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.

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Overcoming the Odds
Sporting achievement is just one example of how the theme of “overcoming the odds” can be used in literature

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.

Love Conquers All
Love is perhaps the most common element in all works of fiction

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 common 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.

Graham Greene is one example of an author who commonly explored themes of religion and sin

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
Many novels with this theme warn of the dangers of confronting 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”

Individual vs. Society
An outsider from societal norms is a common feature of works with this theme

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.

Good vs. Evil
Opposing forces of good and evil form the basis for countless classic works of fiction

Quite possibly 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), although there are plenty of more pessimistic works of literature in which evil prevails.

If you found this list of common literary themes helpful, check out our Writer’s Toolbox for a host of free and informative writing resources:

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