Common Themes in Literature List: 15+ With Examples!

books on a shelf

What are common themes in literature?

Some of the most common themes in books and movies are love, betrayal, courage, redemption, coming of age, survival, and the battle between good and evil.

A literary theme is like the heart of a story – it’s what the story is really about underneath its plot. Click to go directly to the theme examples!

Do you love reading books or watching movies and want to know more about the different themes that run through them?

A big part of my writing journey has been to better understand the importance of theme in the stories I write. At first, it was something I felt more than actively explored, but over the years, I’ve grown to understand that it’s as important an element to a good story as plot, characters, and the setting.

That’s why I wrote this article about examples of themes in books and literature! Let’s explore some of the most popular themes and discuss how authors use them to convey their messages.

Reading and watching movies are great ways to learn more about the world around you, and by understanding the different themes in literature, you can gain a deeper appreciation for the stories that are told.

what are literary themes infographic

Examples of Themes in Literature

1. Good Versus Evil

Good vs evil theme

One of the most common themes in literature is the classic battle between good and evil. This can take many forms, but at its heart, it is a struggle between those who seek to do right and those who don’t care if they do wrong.

This theme often shows itself as a conflict between two characters, one representing good and the other representing evil.

In some stories, such as those featuring superheroes, this conflict is literal, with the hero fighting against the villain.

In others, the battle is more abstract, with the characters representing different ideologies or worldviews, contending with complex ideas.

But regardless of how it is expressed, as noted in this article, the battle between good and evil is a timeless theme that pretty much everyone can relate to!

The Good vs Evil theme is found in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the Harry Potter Series, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and A Time to Kill.

2. Coming of Age

coming of age literary theme

There are few human experiences more universal than coming of age. It is a time of great change and growth as we leave childhood behind and step into the world as adults.

This transition is often marked by confusion and uncertainty as we grapple with who we are and what we want to do with our lives. But it can also be a time of great hope and possibility as we explore the world and discover new things about ourselves.

Literature has long been fascinated by this journey, and many of its greatest works explore the theme of coming of age.

From Homer’s Odyssey to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, these stories offer insight into the human experience and remind us that we are not alone in our struggles.

They also give us hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how difficult the journey may be.

Examples of the Coming of Age theme include Stand By Me, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Emma, and The Breakfast Club.

3. Survival

survival literary theme

One of the most universal themes in literature is survival. This is often seen in stories where the main character faces some obstacle or challenge that they must overcome.

In many cases, the story is told from the perspective of the protagonist, who is struggling to survive.

This theme can be traced back to some of the earliest stories ever written, and it continues to be a popular theme in modern literature. There are several reasons why this theme is so enduring.

First, it speaks to our universal fear of death and our desire to live.

Second, it is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, there is always hope.

Third, it allows us to experience the thrill of victory over adversity vicariously, or at the very least, to know that there is a measure of reward in the struggle.

Examples of the Survival theme include Robinson Crusoe, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, CastAway, The Grey, and The Handmaid’s Tale.

4. Courage and Heroism

theme of heroism and courage

It’s no secret that many of the most popular stories in literature feature courageous heroes who face danger and overcome incredible odds.

What may be less well-known is that these tales often carry deep and meaningful messages about the human experience. In particular, they often explore the theme of what it means to be courageous.

On the surface level, stories about courage and heroism can simply be entertaining escapism. But on a deeper level, they can teach us about the importance of stepping up in the face of adversity.

They can show us that even “ordinary” people have the potential to do extraordinary things. And they can remind us that even in the darkest times, there is always hope.

In a way, then, stories about courage and heroism are stories about real life.

They offer insight into the human condition and remind us of what it means to be brave – not in the absence of fear, but willing to act in the face of fear. In times of trouble, these tales can provide comfort and inspiration.

It is no wonder that they continue to resonate with people all over the world, regardless of culture or background.

Whether we are facing our own challenges or simply cheering on our favorite characters, these stories remind us that anything is possible if we dare to dream and dare to fight for what we believe.

Examples of the Courage and Heroism theme include Braveheart, 1917, The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, and True Grit.

5. Redemption


One of the most explored themes in literature is redemption – the idea that a person can change for the better and be forgiven for their past mistakes.

It is a powerful theme that can resonate with readers on a personal level. We have all made choices that we regret, and the idea that we can be redeemed is both hopeful and inspiring.

Literature often explores the idea of redemption through the lens of tragedy. In many stories, the protagonist makes a series of errors that lead to disaster.

However, in the end, the characters can redeem themselves by learning from their mistakes and making things right in their world.

The character’s journey is one of growth and transformation, and it is this journey that speaks to us as readers. We may not all be able to fix our mistakes, but we can learn from them and become better people as a result.

Examples of the Redemption theme include Les Misérables, The Kite Runner, Crime and Punishment, Schindler’s List, and The Shawshank Redemption.

6. Power and Corruption

theme of power and corruption

Corruption as a theme in literature is often used to describe the misuse of power either by an individual or by an institution.

Corruption can take many forms, from bribery and nepotism to fraud and extortion. It can result in the abuse of authority, the betrayal of trust, and the oppression of the weak.

In literature, the theme of corruption is a way to explore the dark side of human nature and warn against the dangers of giving in to temptation.

Corruption is a universal literary theme because it is something that everyone can relate to. We have all experienced it in some way, whether it be through witnessing it firsthand or being the victim of it.

Corruption is a reminder that no one is above temptation and that even the most good-hearted person can be seduced by power.

Examples of the theme of Corruption include Game of Thrones, Macbeth, The Last King of Scotland, There Will be Blood, and The Godfather.

7. Love


It’s no secret that love is a popular literary theme! Whether it’s unrequited love, forbidden love, or just plain old soulmate love, readers can’t seem to get enough of stories about all-consuming love.

Maybe it’s because we can all relate to the experience of being in love, or maybe we’re just suckers for a good romance.

Either way, love is a pervasive theme in literature, one that shows up again and again in books and films from all genres and eras.

What makes love such a compelling theme? Perhaps it’s because it’s one of the most universal human experiences. No matter who we are or where we come from, we all know what it feels like to fall in love.

Love can be joyful and exciting, but it can also be painful and confusing. It can lift us to the heights of ecstasy or plunge us into the depths of despair. In other words, it’s pretty much the perfect fodder for fiction!

Whether you’re a sucker for a romantic comedy or a die-hard fan of tragic romance, there’s no denying that love is one of the most powerful and timeless themes in literature!

Examples of the theme of Love include Romeo and Juliet, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Notebook, Titanic, and Pride and Prejudice.

8. Perseverance

theme of perseverance

One of the most common core themes in literature is perseverance – the idea that despite challenges and setbacks, overcoming them and achieving success is always possible.

This theme is often represented through the journey of a protagonist who must overcome obstacles to reach their goal.

In some cases, the protagonist’s challenges are physical, such as in the story of a character who must find their way through a maze or climb a mountain.

In other cases, the challenges may be more psychological, such as a character who must overcome their fears or self-doubt.

No matter what form they take, these challenges test the strength of the protagonist and their resolve to reach their goal.

Through their journey, they learn important lessons about themselves and gain the skills and confidence necessary to achieve their objectives.

In many ways, this journey represents the human experience, which is why perseverance is such a common theme in literature and film.

It speaks to our universal desire to overcome challenges and achieve our goals, no matter how difficult they may seem.

Examples of the theme of Perseverance include The Martian, Rudy, The King’s Speech, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Lone Survivor.

9. Revenge

literary theme of revenge

From the works of William Shakespeare to modern-day thrillers, the theme of revenge is universally understood.

There is something inherently satisfying about seeing someone who has wronged another get their comeuppance. In many ways, it is a way of restoring balance to the world.

The act of revenge also allows the victim to take back some measure of control over their life. After experiencing a traumatic event, it can be empowering to see the person responsible brought to justice.

In literature, the theme of revenge often serves as a motivating factor for the protagonist.

It can drive them to overcome incredible odds and persevere in the face of adversity, but it can also become self-destructive or obsessive if left unchecked.

Examples of the theme of Revenge include The Count of Monte Cristo, Moby Dick, Murder on the Orient Express, Gladiator, and Unforgiven.

10. Prejudice

prejudice theme

Another universal theme in literature is prejudice. Prejudice can take many forms, from racial discrimination to classism to sexism to homophobia.

No matter what form it takes, prejudice is always unjust and harmful. In literature, prejudice often leads to conflict between characters and groups of characters, and how readers interpret these conflicts can vary widely.

For example, in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, racial prejudice is a major source of tension between the white and black communities in Maycomb, Alabama.

The novel explores the injustice of racism and the damage that it does to both those who are victimized by it and those who perpetrate it.

Similarly, in William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies, prejudice takes the form of fear and mistrust of others.

This fear leads the boys to violence, as they turn on each other in an attempt to assert their own power. Once again, Golding shows how prejudice can lead to destruction.

These are just two examples of how literature often uses prejudice as a way to explore larger themes of justice, morality, and humanity.

Examples of the theme of Prejudice include Fences, Catcher in the Rye, The Power of One, Parasite, and 1984.

11. Death

book theme of death

Death is another common theme in literature. This theme is often explored through the lens of loss, grief, and mourning. Characters may experience the death of a loved one, or they may come to terms with their own mortality.

In either case, death is a powerful force that can bring about huge changes in a person’s life and worldview.

While some characters may be able to move on relatively quickly, others may be forever changed by their experience with death.

No matter how a character deals with death, it is always a significant event that will affect the rest of the story in many ways.

Examples of the theme of Death include Where the Red Fern Grows, The Fault in Our Stars, Meet Joe Black, Soul, and The Seventh Seal.

12. Family

book theme: family

Family is often the most important thing in our lives. It’s not surprising then that there are so many stories about them!

Through our families, we learn about love, responsibility, and what it means to be part of a community. We also learn about our culture and heritage and how to navigate the world around us.

In many ways, our families are our first teachers. We may not always appreciate them as we grow up, but they are always there for us, shaping and molding us into the people we become.

For better or for worse, our family relationships and upbringing affect our personalities and life experiences in so many ways!

And it is through literature and film that we can explore the complexities and nuances of family relationships. We can see ourselves in the characters and learn more about what it means to be part of a family.

From the nuclear family to the extended family, from the adoptive family to the foster family, there are endless possibilities when it comes to exploring the theme of family in literature.

Examples of the theme of Family include Little Women, Coco, The Secret Garden, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Anne of Green Gables.

13. Justice

theme in books: justice

The need for justice is a common theme found in many books. This theme can manifest in many ways, but it often revolves around fairness and equality.

In some stories, justice is achieved through acts of revenge, while in others, it is attained by ensuring everyone is treated fairly. But no matter how it is achieved, the result is always the same: a sense of satisfaction and resolution for the reader.

The theme of justice is often explored in stories about crime and punishment. In these tales, the characters must wrestle with whether an eye for an eye is the best way to achieve justice.

Oftentimes, the answer is unclear, and the characters are forced to balance their sense of morality with the need for revenge. These stories usually end with a mix of triumph and tragedy, as some forms of justice are attained while others are lost.

The quest for justice can also be seen in stories about social injustice. In these narratives, the characters fight against discrimination or unfair treatment. They may be striving to end racism, sexism, or any other form of prejudice.

Many of these stories typically have a more hopeful tone, often ending with the oppressed group achieving equality or understanding.

Examples of the theme of Justice include 12 Angry Men, The Rainmaker, Erin Brockovich, Dear Martin, and A Few Good Men.

14. Identity (“Who Am I?”)

theme of identity

One widely used theme in literature is the search for identity. This can take many forms, from a character’s internal struggle with self-awareness to find their place in the world to a more literal quest to discover their true parentage or origins.

In some cases, the search for identity is fueled by a need to find out who someone really is beneath the masks they wear for the people around them.

In others, it is driven by a desire to understand why they are different from everyone else or how they fit into the world.

However, the journey to find one’s identity is always a personal one, and it is often through exploring the lives of others that we gain the most insight into our own.

By reading about the characters who have gone before us, we can see that we are not alone in our search for answers and that, ultimately, we all share the same need to identify with something larger than ourselves.

Examples of the theme of Identity include Dead Poets Society, American Beauty, Wonder, Shutter Island, and The Bourne Identity.

15. War

literary theme: war

War has been a universal theme in literature since the dawn of storytelling. In fact, one could argue that war is the very first story ever told.

The stories of the Trojan War and the Iliad are some of the oldest examples of literature in existence, and they both revolve around the theme of war. Even in more modern works, war remains a popular subject.

Today, stories about war are often used to explore the human condition and to make commentary on the deeper aspects of human nature.

In many ways, war provides a microcosm for understanding the human experience. Through war stories, we can learn about courage and sacrifice, honor and betrayal, and love and loss.

In short, war stories have the power to teach us about the best and worst of what it means to be human.

Examples of the theme of War include From Here to Eternity, The Young Lions, Apocalypse Now, All Quiet on the Western Front, and War and Peace.

Theme Examples in Books

Handmaid’s Tale

Handmaid's tale

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the themes of control and oppression, perseverance, and survival are explored through the struggles of the book’s protagonist, Offred.

Offred is a handmaid, a woman who has been forced into sexual servitude in order to produce children for the ruling class. Throughout the novel, Offred fights against the oppressive regime that controls her life, ultimately leading to her escape.

The above themes are also mirrored in the book’s setting, which is a totalitarian society that strips away individual freedoms.

As a result, The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful exploration of how our lives can be controlled by those in power and the high cost of fighting for individual freedoms.

The Great Gatsby

silver ring on silver ring

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a novel that deals with many different themes, including the story’s theme of the American Dream, love, and loss.

The central character, Jay Gatsby, seemingly embodies the ideal of the American Dream – that anything is possible if you work hard enough for it.

However, his obsession with Daisy Buchanan leads him down a dark path with an “at all costs attitude”, and he ultimately loses everything he has worked for.

The novel also explores the theme of love, both in its romantic sense and in terms of the bond between friends.

Gatsby’s love for Daisy is ultimately what destroys him, but his friendship with Nick Carraway is one of the few things that remains constant throughout the novel.

The theme of loss is also evident in the story through the failed relationships, tragedies, and ultimately Gatsby’s own death, which marks the end of an era.

Harry Potter

Close-Up Shot of a Spell Book and a Wand

There are many examples of literary themes in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. One theme is the battle between good and evil.

This is seen in the battle between Harry and Voldemort and the struggle between the Order of the Phoenix and the Death Eaters.

Another theme is the importance of friendship. This is seen in the relationships between Harry, Ron, and Hermione, as well as between Harry and Dumbledore.

The power of love and the importance of family are also recurring themes in the series, as Harry’s journey to reconnect with his lost parents helps him discover a new family in his friends.

It is also seen in the way that Lily’s love for Harry protects him from Voldemort and that Snape’s love for Lily leads him to protect Harry.

My Experience With Story Themes

In terms of the five W’s of any good story, theme answers the WHY.

For example, in my rom-com screenplay, The Unsent Letter, the plot revolves around a woman trying to win back her lost love after finding a previously unread letter he wrote her years before.

The WHY of the story is that she discovers she’s still in love with him and resolves to win him back at all costs.

That’s the power of theme. It’s what the story is really about at its most basic level.

The Difference Between Theme and Subject Matter

A story can be about anything, but there’s usually something deeper going on beneath the surface.

The theme of a story is the broader statement or main message that the story is trying to communicate. It’s often an abstract concept, such as love, loss, betrayal, or redemption.

On the other hand, the subject matter is the specific events and details that make up the story. In other words, it’s the plot.

To put it another way, the theme is what the story is about, and the subject matter is how the story goes about exploring that theme. The “why” vs. the “what”.

For example, the subject matter of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen is that of a young mermaid who dreams of becoming human and marrying a prince. The themes, however, are alienation, unrequited love, redemption, and even “be careful what you wish for.”

As you can see, the theme is not always immediately apparent, and stories may have multiple themes. Sometimes, it takes a close reading – or multiple readings – of the text to discover everything the author is trying to say.

There are endless possibilities for both themes and subject matters in stories, but ultimately, it’s up to the author to decide what they want their story to be about.

a beautiful old fashioned library

How To Choose a Theme

A writer’s choice of literary theme in their creative writing often reflects their own experiences and values.

For example, a writer who has experienced loss may explore the theme of grief in their work. Alternatively, a writer who is passionate about social justice may choose to write about the marginalization of certain groups of people.

Sometimes, a writer may be drawn to a particular theme simply because it is underrepresented in the current literary landscape.

Whatever the reason, choosing a literary theme is an important part of the writing process.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you think about the potential central theme of your short story, novel, or screenplay:

  • What topics are you passionate about?
  • What question or issue keeps you up at night?
  • What makes you angry or frustrated?
  • What have been some formative personal experiences in your own life?

Once you have a list of potential themes for your book, consider the following:

  • What is the genre of your story? Is it a light-hearted romance or a gritty mystery? The genre will often dictate the book’s overall tone, which can help narrow down your choices.
  • Who are the main characters in your story? What motivates them? What do they hope to achieve? What drives their actions? By understanding your characters, you can identify the key conflicts in your story and choose a theme that speaks to these issues.
  • What is the setting of your book? Is it an idyllic small town or a bustling metropolis? The location can help to shape the theme of your story. For example, if your book is set in a small town, you might want to explore themes of community and family. If it is set in a city, you could focus on themes of isolation and alienation.

Questions (FAQs)

books on brown wooden shelf

Can a story have more than one theme?

Yes, a story can have more than one theme. Many stories have multiple themes that work together to create a more complex narrative. For example, a story about a young girl forced to leave home due to civil war might have themes of loss, hope, and resilience. Or a story about a boy bullied at school might have themes of friendship, courage, and determination.

How do you find the theme in a story?

One way to find the theme of a story is to look at the characters and see how they change throughout the story. Another way is to look at the story events and see how they relate. Finally, you can look at the symbols and images used in the story and see how they contribute to the overall meaning.

Where in my story should the theme be evident?

When it comes to theme, there’s no single answer as to where it should be evident in a story. It can be introduced in the very first sentence, or it could gradually reveal itself throughout the tale. The important thing is that the theme is present throughout the story, from beginning to end.

In the introduction, the theme might be hinted at or even stated outright. This can be a good way to grab readers’ attention and set the stage for what’s to come. During the inciting incident and rising action, the theme can be explored in more depth as characters face conflicts and challenges.

The theme may become more evident in the climax, as events come to a head and everything hangs in the balance. Finally, in the falling action and resolution, the theme can be tied up neatly or left open-ended for interpretation.

Can I use AI to help me find a theme for my story?

When choosing a theme for your story, there are endless possibilities. But sometimes, using a tool to help you narrow down your options can be helpful. AI story generator software can be a great way to get some ideas for themes that might work well for your story.

By inputting keywords about the kind of story you want to tell, the software can generate a list of potential themes for you to choose from, helping you navigate modern storytelling. You can then read through the list and see if any themes jump out at you as a good fit for your story.

Common Themes in Literature List Pin

Final Thoughts

Literary themes are a great way to add depth and intrigue to your fiction writing. By exploring different themes, you can open up new possibilities for your story and engage your readers on a deeper level.

We’ve looked at many theme examples, but there are countless others to explore. What theme will you choose for your next literary work?

Interested in learning more about writing great stories? Check out these articles:

How to Write a Story with Three-Act Structure [with Examples!]

What is Pacing in a Story? Tips for Story Pacing for Writers

What is The Resolution in a Story? [Definition and Examples]

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