Stories should be a true experience for readers. Like a gourmet meal, we want there to be more to them than just what is seen on the surface. This depth can be added a number of ways—through subplots, character arc, subtext, theme, and symbolism. Of them all, symbolism is one of the simplest methods to employ, and it packs a serious wallop.
Symbolism is important because it turns an ordinary object, place, color, person, etc. into something that goes beyond the literal. Babies represent innocence and unlimited potential, spring is synonymous with rebirth, shackles symbolize slavery, the color white brings to mind purity.
Symbols like these are universal in nature because they mean the same thing to many people. As such, universal symbols are helpful as readers see them and understand what they literally and figuratively mean. This not only delivers another shade of meaning to whatever is being described, it also promotes word economy because, by its very nature, symbolism allows us to convey more.
But a symbol can also be personal in nature, more individual, meaning something specifically to the character. For William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, the thistle represents love since one was given to him by Murron when they were children. To most people, love in the form of a prickly weed wouldn’t typically compute. But as it’s used throughout the film at poignant moments, the audience comes to recognize this personal symbol for what it means.
So whether the symbol is universally obvious or one that’s specific to the protagonist, it can add a layer that draws readers deeper into the story. The setting itself can become a symbol as a whole should you need it to. A home could stand for safety. A river might represent a forbidden boundary.
More often than not, your symbol will be something within the setting that represents an important idea to your character. And when you look within your protagonist’s immediate world, you’re sure to find something that holds emotional value for him or her.
For instance, if your character was physically abused as a child, it might make sense for the father to be a symbol of that abuse since he was the one who perpetrated it. But the father might live thousands of miles away. The character may have little to no contact with him, which doesn’t leave many chances to symbolize. Choosing something within the protagonist’s own setting will have greater impact and offer more opportunities for conflict and tension. A better symbol might be the smell of his father’s cologne—the same kind his roommate puts on when he’s prepping for a date, the scent of which soaks into the carpet and furniture and lingers for days.
Another choice might be an object from his setting that represents the one he was beaten with: wire hangers in the closet, a heavy dictionary on the library shelf, or the tennis racquet in his daughter’s room that she recently acquired and is using for lessons. These objects won’t be exact replicas of the ones from his past, but they’re close enough to trigger unease, bad memories, or even emotional trauma.
Symbols like these have potential because not only do they clearly remind the protagonist of a painful past event, they’re in his immediate environment, where he’s forced to encounter them frequently. In the case of the tennis racquet, an extra layer of complexity is added because the object is connected to someone he dearly loves—someone he wants to keep completely separate from any thoughts of his abuse.
Motifs: Symbolism on a Larger Scale
Connecting readers with our stories is what we all hope to achieve as authors. This is why the stories we write often contain a central message or idea—a theme—that is being conveyed through its telling. Sometimes the theme is deliberately included during the drafting stage; other times, it organically emerges during the writing process. However it occurs, the theme is often supported by certain recurring symbols that help to develop the overall message or idea throughout the course of a story. These repeated symbols are called motifs.
For example, consider the Harry Potter series. One of the motifs under-girding the theme of good vs. evil is the snake. It’s the sign for the house of Slytherin, from which so many bad wizards have emerged. Voldemort’s pet, Nagini, is a giant snake. Those who can speak Parseltongue (the language of serpents) are considered to be dark wizards. By repeatedly using this creature as a symbol for evil, Rowling creates an image that readers automatically associate with the dark side of Potter’s world.
Because motifs are pivotal in revealing your theme, it’s important to find the right ones. The setting is a natural place for these motifs to occur because it contains so many possibilities. It could be a season, an article of clothing, an animal, a weather phenomenon—it could be anything, as long as it recurs throughout the story and reinforces the overall theme.
Themes can either be planned or accidental. If you know beforehand what your theme will be, think of a location that could reinforce that idea—either through the setting itself or with objects within that place—and make sure those choices are prominently displayed throughout the story.
Need a bit of help finding the right symbol for your story?
Did you know we have a comprehensive Symbolism and Motifs Thesaurus at One Stop for Writers? Stop by sometime and explore the many possible symbols that can be used to enhance the deeper themes in your writing.
How have you used symbolism and motifs in your writing? If you haven't, how would you like to use them to enhance your writing?
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of five bestselling writing books, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. She is passionate about helping writers succeed. Her site, One Stop For Writers is a powerhouse online library like no other, filled with description, story structure, and brainstorming tools to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and at her blog, Writers Helping Writers.