This is a very broad subject. Literary periods differ greatly based upon different cultures. In order to narrow the topic, this answer will include the most commonly referred to literary periods.
449-1066 Anglo-Saxon- This period's characteristics focused upon the trust in fate, the battle between emerging Christian thought and embedded Pagan thought, and the importance of possessing values upheld by the Anglo-Saxon society and culture.
1066-1485 Medieval Period- This period's characteristics focused on morality and religion, chivalry, and nobility.
1485-1660 Renaissance (Elizabethan and Jacobean)- This period moved importance to how ones life is spent while alive (focus no longer on after life), love, and human potential.
1660-1798 Neoclassical- This period focused upon reason and logic. Authors stressed the importance of wisdom and harmony.
1798-1832 British Romantic- This period focused upon the individual and not the societal. Nature is highlighted and Gothic is introduced (stories of terror and horror).
1832-1900 Victorian- This period highlighted the conflict between the powerful and the poor, country life and city life, and lack of sexual discretion.
American Literary Periods
1650-1750 Puritan/Colonial- This period's works were instructive. Many of the works were sermons and personal narratives.
1750-1800 Age of Reason- This period was designed to impact the thoughts of the American people through persuasive writing. Other common texts were those of the political nature.
1800-1860 American Romantic- This period came about as a reaction to the Age of Reason. This period focused upon the importance of imagination and nature.
1840-1860 American Renaissance- This period focused upon the "fact" that reality is grounded in ones spirituality and the existence of sin and evil existing.
1855-1900 Realism-This period was meant to change specific problems which existed in society.
1900-1950 Modernism- This period highlighted the quest for the American Dream and optimism.
1950-Present Post-Modernism- This period broke down the boundaries made by previous periods in regards to social class.
1970+ Contemporary- The characteristics for this period are too hard to combine into one overall distinctive definition.