Literary Themes

I don’t usually think of myself as a writer who sets out with any particular theme(s) in mind when I start a novel – usually my books begin with either a character or a historical event that sparks my imagination and then (as I am a planner not a pantser) the plot and details follow. While I know I am drawn to particular historical periods, character traits, and (dare I say it) political movements and issues, I hadn’t really ever thought about thematic elements in my work until I was putting together an updated project grid listing my current and proposed writing projects. It was only then that I saw some of my little thematic quirks – and of course now I’ve seen them I can’t unsee them!

Literary themes usually address fundamental aspect of society or humanity. In crime fiction issues such as the concepts of justice, punishment, and the nature of good and evil, inevitably come into play. When I think about some of my own favorite writers I soon realize they turn to similar themes in their work. In a series, these themes may recur because they underlie a protagonist’s backstory or motivation (childhood trauma, addiction, poverty etc.) but exploring thematic elements can also (accidentally perhaps) reveal a lot about an  author and the issues they keep come back to in their work.

It was interesting to see the kind of themes that seem to recur in my own books as they certainly seem to suggest I have a few existential and philosophical debates that remain unresolved in my subconscious:) Some of the particular themes I noticed (in no particular order) include:

  • Patriotism (I often seem drawn to characters fighting for political independence or going against the established notion of patriotic duty);
  • Good versus evil in a spiritual/supernatural sense (I often explore religious, occult, and spiritualist ideas);
  • A women’s role in society (okay, no surprise there, since I have suffragette characters!);
  • Dislocation (My characters are often feel they don’t belong or are disassociated from the life they currently live);
  • Loss (this surprised me as I hadn’t realized just how many characters I have dealing with the aftermath of loss).

In addition, I also found that I seem to have an inordinate interest in both India and Ireland. The latter is probably explained by my Irish roots (thanks!) but I’m not sure about the India obsession (I’d like to think I lived there in a previous life, but given my results I would have been too poor to leave the farm in Ireland!). I also have a weird attraction to the year 1916…with 3 unrelated books set in that year without me consciously realizing it!

So TKZers, have you ever explored the themes that underlie the books you write or the books you love to read? When you look at your own work, do you see recurring themes? If so, what are they?






39 thoughts on “Literary Themes

  1. Often, I feel like I’m writing the same book over and over, at least in my romantic suspense series. Characters on journeys of self-discovery. Other themes pop in, but it seems the self-discovery/fresh start is a very common one. Even my Mapleton Mystery series follows a protagonist who’s discovering more and more about himself, what he was, and what he’s becoming.

  2. I had a similar epiphany, Clare, after someone here (Kris, maybe?) broached themes a while back. And I was shocked to learn how almost all my thrillers include protecting one’s family, discovering one’s self within a family, or their yearning for a loved one after a loss. It’s crazy! Obviously, losing my own family in my teen years affected me on a deep, personal level, and it leaks into my writing.

  3. Agreed. It’s not something I’ve consciously thought about–I just choose story ideas that interest me. But one of the recurring themes I noticed early on is how impacted I have been by stories of people who didn’t have a great father figure in their lives. I also tend to focus not on families or romantic relationships but on independent characters who are struggling to survive on their own and the self-discovery that occurs during that process. And undergirding all of those, of course, is constantly examining the idea of what impact can one person have to positively change their world (whether literally the world or their own little corner of it).

    A current series of historical mystery books I am reading (I think there are 20-something books in the series) tend to draw me back in part because the protag is interested in improving their world and bit by bit, they take steps to do so.

    • It is weird once you see it – like you I never have any conscious idea of a theme when I begin a book but it seems like all of us have sub-conscious ideas we feel compelled to examine in our work (which I’m sure strengthens the work too!)

  4. Good question Clare.

    The theme I go back to over and over again is injustice in the real world (that I can’t do anything about). But in the fictional world, I can and do dispense justice, although it may not always be in expected ways.

  5. Good topic, Clare. Because I write in the Historical Fiction and Historical Fantasy arenas, I like to explore the basic theme that “we are all the same.” Whether that’s mid-17th century North America or Spain and Gibraltar 40,000 years ago. Different worlds, different problems, different people (even different species!), but still . . . we’re all basically the same under the hood, and have been for millennia.

  6. Hi Clare,

    This is a topic a lot of writers I know shy away from, because they feel it best comes without the writer thinking about it. I’ve never consciously been able to come up with a theme before writing a novel; I find it emerges in the course of planning and plotting, or even revision, but being aware of it can really help.

    Dislocation is one of my themes, too. Another is the importance of “found family,” the group of close friends who become a family.

  7. Since I didn’t have a good relationship with my birth father (he threatened to shoot me if I came near which I didn’t) I usually write about a character who is seeking his or her father’s approval. No surprise there. lol Although sometimes, it’s the mother’s approval.
    And my villain (occasionally more than one) is always caught and punished accordingly.

    • That must have been a very difficult relationship to endure and it makes sense that you would subconsciously try to resolve/work through similar issues in your work – and that you would make sure the villain gets the punishment he/she is due!

  8. Your definition of themes is about the type of novel you write. It’s much, much broader in the grand scheme of literature. Theme can go as deep as Jungian/Freudian to mythological thematic/archetypal elements, and as wide as cultural/political/psychological commentary on the human race. (Individual usage of these elements tends toward motifs, but over-all novel and career usage is theme.)

    I’m part of a reread group at of the late Andre Norton’s vast backlist of over fifty years, and, no matter what genre she wrote, she simply couldn’t get away from certain thematic elements, particularly the Jungian/mythological archetype of the underground journey and rebirth as someone new to change the protag’s life journey. That seemed to be a soul-deep part of her. Others came and went through her career.

    From my own perspective as a writer of almost 50 years with a tendency to notice my own inner workings, some themes keep occurring for a few books, no matter the genre, until I work it out of my system. Others are career and life wide. The labyrinth/journey without end fills my books and my dreams. Also, twins including psychological doppelgangers and emotional mirrors. Biological family and friends as family are both what the protag works toward to who has his/her back. Lots more but I’m saying way more about myself than I want to.

  9. I’m with Debbie, in that all of my books are about justice. I think one of the reasons people read thrillers is to help manage their fears and entertain the possibility that justice will be done. Or at least might be done. The great myths are like that, too. They teach the community virtue and courage. Not a bad thing for a novelist. Even the old pulp writers understood this. Erle Stanley Gardner made that the central theme of his Perry Mason books, and for many years they were the most popular books in the world.

    • Justice is the end game for all mysteries and thrillers, just as the happily-ever-after is the end game for romances, and finding the solution to the science puzzle is often the end game for science fiction. Those are the promise the writer makes to the reader at the beginning, and if the writer doesn’t come through, the readers are p*ssed and the writer is no longer read. Some people turn up their noses at the so-called formula of popular genre, but that formula is part of the writer’s promise to the reader.

      What fascinated me, after 9/11, was what became popular on TV. The CSI shows exploded because they promised justice and identification for the dead, and THE GHOST WHISPERER promised eternal justice and happiness. Two sides of the same coin.

      It may be a little early to see how Quarantine changes things, but what I’ve seen is a surge in lighter topics. I’m curious if the new WALKING DEAD show hits the zeitgeist or will people avoid it because it hits too close to home?

  10. As I think about it, two themes show up in my first three novels: Relationships among family members, especially the role of women and the choices they make.

    At first, I thought maybe it’s because the novels all take place in the early 1960s, when expectations and roles were more tightly defined. However, for several years, I wrote flash fiction (in no particular time periods), and the same two themes are prominent in those stories, too.

  11. Fascinating discussion, Clare!

    I’m still a newbie, working on my first two (or three or four or five) novels, but I already know what my prevailing themes will be as I keep writing.

    Reconciliation is huge for me. I’ve experienced some tragic family relationships that seemed broken beyond repair, but then miracles happened. There are other relationships that are still awaiting the miracle.

    I’m one of those odd people who think nothing should break a family relationship, that I have no right to sever ties with my own blood, no matter what the circumstance. (I do, however, acknowledge that other folks out there have experiences that demand they do, for their own survival. I hope I never have to.)

    My WsIP are about normal people thrust into harsh and frightening circumstances which demand a choice to fight for their relationships, or to give up and walk away.

    I’m for fighting… 🙂

  12. I attended a conference some years ago where Joe Haldeman (Nebula and Hugo award winning SF author) held a session about writing. He stated that if you wanted to know what was important to an author at any given time in their life, all you had to do was look at the books they wrote during that time. The themes of the works spoke volumes about the author’s mind, even if the author wasn’t consciously aware of it.

    My works tend to include dysfunctional families, and also underdogs fighting powerful organizations, ie, government entities and big corporations.

  13. As a cozy mystery writer, my books (there are two of them now!) are all about justice achieved by hard work and a little luck. I love creating a puzzle that the reader puts together until the final piece reveals the killer.

    For book #2 I chose a specific theme: “Saving one life is like saving the whole world.”

  14. I write many storied about characters who defy the established order. That’s no surprise, because that is me inside and out. I never really thought much about it, though it should be obvious. Selective? Could be. As much as I don’t want to admit it, I’m writing about myself every time. (Don’t put yourself in your own story. Oops.)

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