Every good paper begins with a writer (oftentimes a frazzled one) wondering, What should I write about? Even if you've thoroughly read the text, sometimes it's hard to narrow down your choices to a topic that you're truly excited about. To help you get started, we've come up with a list of common literary themes that you can apply to almost any literary work you read. 

  • Personal roles. Personal roles typically fall into four categories: gender, family, occupational, or socioeconomic roles. Perhaps the story challenges (or embraces) traditional gender or family roles. Maybe one character is in a unique position to comment on the others' lives because of his or her occupation. Perhaps a group of working class individuals or a group of royalty plays an important part in the work. Examine what makes a character or set of characters fit into (or stray away from) their "traditional" role.
  • Traditions and customs. Speaking of traditional, a lot of classic literary works are, well, old. Spend some time examining the customs described in the book. What do these traditions suggest about social expectations at that time and place? How do these traditions help or hurt the characters?  
  • Symbolism. Symbols can be objects, actions, or even a person or group of people. If there's a recurring image in the text or a character that seems to serve only one purpose, spend some time asking yourself, What does it/do they mean? 
  • Emotions. Love, hate, anger, joy, hope, and so many more are often recurring themes in literature. How does experiencing these emotions affect the people in the story? 
  • Character traits. These include a mix of "good" traits (like courage, kindness, strength, and determination) and "bad" traits (like pride, selfishness, lust, and laziness). In some stories, the heroes are only good, the villains only bad. However, authors often complicate their characters. Perhaps the hero has a fatal flaw, or maybe there's something redeeming about the villain. Examine these anomalies within a single character, or examine how two or three different characters' personalities coordinate or clash with each other.
  • Cultural and/or historical. Rather than looking at what makes up the innerworkings of a character or their specific roles in society, you could examine that society in general. What was Victorian England really like? What about ancient Greece, when Homer was busy writing the Odyssey? What about the 1930s South, in which Harper Lee set To Kill a Mockingbird? How did the cultural customs, time, and place in which the author wrote affect the story?
  • Theoretical. A more advanced tactic usually reserved for upper level or graduate classes, using a theoretical framework means that you compare the literary work to a particular school of philosophical thought. For instance, you might choose to read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance or analyze The Great Gatsby in light of the Modernist movement in which F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. You could also discuss works using schools of critical thought, such as ecocriticism, deconstructionism, Marxism, and a whole host of other -isms.

Here are some other helpful tips:

  • Make a list of any possible topics you can think of. Then, cross off the ones you're the least excited about. When you've got 2-3 ideas left, try some prewriting activities. Ask questions or freewrite about each topic. Which one feels most natural? Most interesting? Do any of these topics need to be narrowed or adjusted before they'll make a good paper?
  • Talk to your professor. Chances are, they've read this material several times. They know it like the back of their hand, so if you approach them with a list of ideas, they can offer you advice on the advantages and pitfalls of your potential topics, helping you make the right decision.
  • Choose your thesis (not just your topic, but your stance on it as well) before you research. Then, you'll be much more invested in your own original thinking this way and less likely to accidentally "borrow" someone else's thesis.