Delving into the pages of a captivating book is more than just an escape; it's a journey through the complex web of ideas, emotions, and perspectives that shape our understanding of the world. These ideas manifest as the themes in books. They are what attract us to a new story – and what keeps us hooked long after we turn the first page.
While there are many themes in books, there are a few beloved and time-tested ones that are universal to nearly everyone's human experience. Additionally, certain themes lend themselves particularly well to specific book genres.
Today, we'll be exploring these themes.
This guide to themes in books includes:
But first, what are literary themes?
Literary themes are central concepts or topics that are explored and developed in a book. When we say “themes,” we are referring to the ideas that provide depth and insight into the storyline and its characters, resonating with readers on a personal and emotional level. They are an important part of both fiction and nonfiction books, serving as the underlying message, lesson, or meaning of a story and, often, providing insight into the author's perspective.
If we conducted a case study on the Harry Potter fantasy book series, we’d see the themes of coming of age, love (romantic and friendship), good versus evil, and the struggle between morals emerge.
To Kill A Mockingbird is a coming-of-age novel that intertwines heavy topics such as prejudice, difficulties in family life, and courage. What sets this novel apart is not just the plot but the staying power of its themes.
The 7 most common themes in books
As you'll see, some of these themes in books may also dictate their genres, but that's not always the case. It's possible to address love when writing a memoir and to have a classic good vs. evil conflict in an otherwise feel-good comedy.
In fact, most great books mix themes. And understanding the most iconic themes as an author will help you intentionally resonate with your audience. So, let's get into it.
Ah, love. Perhaps the most universal and enduring theme. While people love reading and writing romance novels, this one goes beyond romantic love (requited, tragic, or otherwise). A book with love as a theme could include familial love, friendship, and self-love. These stories often revolve around the complexities, joys, and challenges of human relationships (though fantasy genres may take you beyond human love!).
2. Coming of age
There's a reason that young adult fiction is one of the top-selling book genres – and across all ages of people. For younger readers, a story about that life-altering transition from childhood to adulthood may make them feel less alone. For adult readers, it stokes a sense of nostalgia. Coming-of-age themes in books often include a healthy dose of self-discovery, lessons about maturity, and difficult challenges of growing up.
We all have very different experiences and feelings about death. And you can find this literary theme in everything from romance – such as Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk To Remember – and young adult – They Both Die At The End – to horror and inspirational nonfiction. The relationship between life, death, and loss is one we must all navigate at some point in our lives, and leads to an impactful, thought-provoking read.
You don't have to write a book about Christianity or another religion to address this theme in your book. Faith comes in many forms and can include a relationship between humans and deities, between two characters, and even faith in oneself. When using this as one of the themes in books, authors often include moments of doubt.
This is a dynamic theme as readers of all backgrounds struggle with faith versus doubt in a plethora of ways. This theme is universal: Do I trust the friend who hurt me or doubt their motives? Is there a God? Do I choose faith or doubt in ____ situation?
The fight for power, the story of a hero's (or villain's) rise to power, and the classic battle between good and evil – these are all examples of ways that power may surface as a literary theme.
As we mentioned, there are often multiple themes in books. And most commentaries or discussions of power often go hand-in-hand with oppression. They also thrust the reader into questions of morality, ethics, and the choices characters make in the face of moral dilemmas.
In The Hunger Games, President Snow uses his power to condemn the weak. In Jason Bourne, the power dynamic is a struggle between opposing characters and spurs readers to read to the last page.
This one's another of the timeless themes in books because it often stirs something deep within us. It explores the defiance of societal norms, authority, personal beliefs, identity, or oppressive systems. Whether it's characters leading an uprising against an oppressive government in a dystopian sci-fi, a teen rebelling against social expectations in coming of age tale, or someone defying conventional wisdom to forge their own path in a memoir, rebellion as a theme, we love to read about.
As one of the more popular themes in books, it makes us want to root for the main character while touching on topics like courage, determination, and loneliness – all things we must overcome to pursue personal freedom.
7. Women's roles in society
Whether you see this theme in Little Women or Pride and Prejudice or notice it in some of the best celebrity memoirs of today, women's struggles and experiences are an important theme that unites and impacts everyone. Using this theme in books can be controversial, but it doesn't always need to be negative. Writing female characters can include using stereotypical stock characters (IE: the damsel in distress, the hard-working career woman, etc), going deeper and writing about feminism, or backing into the theme in another way, such as by addressing women's beauty standards.
Consider both the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and the comparison of Elizabeth Bennet to her older “more beautiful” sister, Jane. The Evil Queen starts as the most beautiful but is later revealed as the villain. Elizabeth is said to be plain, but later, her character reveals her true beauty.
Which themes in books do you most resonate with? And which do you find you tend to use most in your storytelling as an author?
How themes in books differ from genre to genre
This list of different book genres you could write for as an author is about as long as the list of themes in books. But, while there is always room to switch themes and plots from genre to genre, there is an underlying expectation that specific plots will lend to specific themes.
You’ve likely opened a thriller and not been surprised when the protagonist is suddenly involved in a cat-and-mouse scene. Similarly, if you have a proclivity to read light-hearted novels, you would be surprised to find a theme of oppression or survival.
With these examples in mind, let’s discuss a few themes in books and how they reflect their respective genres.
If you read the bestselling The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, or Divergent series, you likely noticed that the themes in these books were vastly similar. Dystopian literary themes often focus on one or more of the following:
- Good versus evil
While these themes could definitely appear in romance books, they are typically associated with dystopia.
Romance themes in books can cover a wide gamut. There are dark romances, stories about toxic relationships, tragic and unrequited love, and any number of romance tropes an author could employ. Again, while individual novels may combine multiple themes, here are some of the popular literary themes found in romance novels:
- Second chances
- Friends to lovers
Ripe with edge-of-your seat plot twists and insurmountable obstacles often include some common themes in this genre of books includes:
Robert Ludlum, original creator of the hero Jason Bourne, used many such themes. In fact, the film adaptations include each of the themes listed above and more. While not every thriller needs to use these literary themes, they can help move the story along and keep the reader emotionally invested. If you write or read nonfiction, you've likely noticed these themes emerge as well.
There's nearly no literary theme YA authors haven't addressed. But while the popularity of themes in YA literature can shift over time, several themes have consistently remained popular:
- Coming of age
- Mental health
Comparing different literary elements of a book
At this point, we've mentioned genre, plot, setting, and, of course, themes in books.
Before we leave you, let's look at the difference between these literary elements – and how each is related to theme.
From the top: the genre.
Different genres categorize each book based on its style, tone in writing, and narrative conventions. Meanwhile, the theme of a book represents the central ideas and messages explored.
A story's plot focuses on the outward accomplishments of the characters – and the setting of the story is the context in which the events happen. Meanwhile, the literary themes focus on the inner struggles, setbacks, and victories of the characters.
Let's revisit the Harry Potter example. Throughout the series, Harry’s overall trajectory is to bring down Voldemort (the plot) against the backdrop of going to wizarding school in a magical world (the setting). But during the process, he learns the importance of friendship, pursuing good, and defining his own character through his choices (the themes). These literary themes emerge slowly and shape the story.
Now that you have a deep understanding of all the elements that go into a great book, you should be ready to create a great book outline for your own story! Don't get too worried about how all the details and sub-themes will fit together. Let the characters (or your own story) lead you where they will.
Your future book editor will ensure cohesion between themes during the developmental editing phase. For now, your only job to focus on writing!