How Literary Themes Are Presented in a Book Series

by Sara Letourneau
published in Reading

Who doesn’t love a good book series? George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels, Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy – no matter the genre, readers get a thrill out of revisiting familiar settings and reuniting with favorite characters. It’s also possible that we might continue reading a series because we enjoy or connect with its themes, or the ideas and concepts that form the heart of the overarching story.

Which begs the question: How are themes presented in a book series? Do the same themes appear in every installment? Or do later books present new themes and offer a fresh perspective on previous ones? Let’s look at two different series to gain a better understanding of how all this is accomplished, as well as what to consider if you plan on writing your own series.

When Literary Themes Appear Throughout a Series

Typically, a few select themes serve as the backbone of the series. They’re often introduced in the first book and rely heavily on elements that reappear in most (if not all) of the later installments. These shared elements include returning characters (e.g., protagonists, antagonists, supporting cast), the constants in their lives (e.g., goals, relationships, jobs / societal roles), the overall main conflict, and the setting. In other words, the factors that influence a protagonist’s journey – and therefore the themes – in a single book can also influence the big-picture themes of a series.

Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet is a fantastic example of recurring themes in a series. In the first book Alanna: The First Adventure, 10-year-old Alanna of Trebond disguises herself as a boy so she can train to become a knight. Her decision spirits her off to the capital of Tortall for an adolescence of adventure, accomplishment, and – since she’s female – secrecy. So it’s no surprise that, once Alanna’s secret is revealed and she must reconcile her chosen path with her femininity, gender and identity continue to be themes in the later books. So do friendship, family, and the supernatural, since all three influence Alanna’s life and choices. And because the quartet follows Alanna until she’s 18 years old, the series can be called a Bildungsroman, or a story centered on a character’s coming of age.

A more recent example is V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic Trilogy. Its first book, A Darker Shade of Magic, whisks readers to an alternate reality of parallel Londons. Kell, a rare blood magician who traverses these worlds, finds himself on the run after someone gives him a black-magic token. With the help of pickpocket Lila Bard, he must race across the Londons to destroy the token and the powermongers pursuing him. Those few sentences reveal several themes – power, good versus evil, exploration, the supernatural – that reassert themselves throughout the series as the dark forces that Kell and Lila thought they had defeated re-emerge. The series also compels its characters to contemplate mortality (due to the violent magic system and constant dangers) and family (especially adopted or chosen families, in Kell’s case).

When Literary Themes Apply to Select Books in a Series

As many writers say, every book has its own personality. This also applies to books within the same series. Each installment shares characters and settings while presenting unique challenges and adding new elements (including new characters and locales) that help set each book apart. These shifts in conflict, relationships, and other dynamics also influence the themes for each individual story.

This is the case with the Song of the Lioness Quartet. For the second book In the Hand of the Goddess, Tamora Pierce introduces love as a theme, with Alanna experiencing romance and jealousy for the first time. Responsibility enters the picture during The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, when Alanna inherits a desert tribe’s shaman role unwittingly, trains young students in magic, and (to further complicate the love theme) weighs the pros and cons of accepting Prince Jonathan’s marriage proposal. Both themes carry into the finale Lioness Rampant and clash head-on with the looming threat of war and the ultimate struggle for power in Tortall.

The Shades of Magic Trilogy also offers new themes as it continues. With A Gathering of Shadows, V.E. Schwab thrusts Lila and Kell into the Elemental Games to illustrate the theme of competition, exposing them to the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat (and injury), and the greed for more. She also highlights secrets, with characters disguising themselves for the Games and hiding or revealing other truths. A Conjuring of Light then draws the series to a pulse-pounding close by tangling existing themes with loss and sacrifice. Heroes and antagonists alike must deal with the deaths of loved ones – and decide what they’re willing to do if they want to save what’s left of their linked worlds.

What Does This Mean If You’re Writing a Series?

If you’re contemplating writing a duology, trilogy, or longer sequence of stories of any length, here are some insights from Song of the Lioness and Shades of Magic that you’ll want to keep in mind:

1) Understand the significance of the protagonist’s goals and pursuits

Her internal journey is just as important as the external conflict, especially when it comes to themes. So make sure that her motivations and choices are vital to plot advancement as well as her own character development.

2) Allow themes from the first story to reappear throughout the series

Since each installment features returning characters, familiar settings, and dangling threads of the initial conflict, it’s natural for the stories to share themes as well. So if you notice recurring themes in your series, don’t worry about whether your writing is repetitive. After all, continuity helps make a series stronger.

3) Remember that each book should be its own “person.”

A series is meant to evolve over time. New elements keep it fresh and exciting, and convince readers to come back to see what other challenges or dangers the protagonist will face. These changes will usher in new themes as well – and if those themes are appropriate for the story you want to tell, embrace them.

These pointers won’t necessarily make it more challenging to craft a book series. In fact, character development, continuity between books, and new elements are already things you’d need to consider. Their impact on themes confirms just how important they are. So if you plan to write your own book series, ensure that each book allows the characters to grow and builds on the events of previous installments while retaining the essence of the first one. Doing so will also nurture themes that will make your series stronger, more compelling, and more endearing to your readers.

What are some of the themes that weave in throughout your favorite book series of all time? Do other themes appear in single books in that same series? If so, which ones? If you’re writing a series, how would you answer the same questions based on your overarching vision for those stories?

 Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Enjoyed this article?