If there’s one thing I love when it comes to storytelling, its symbolism. Next to characters and plot, I probably invest the most in the symbolism that I present in my stories. I also love finding it in other works (though there’s a point in novel study guides when it gets ridiculous. Sometimes a colour is chosen simply because it looks nice. Aesthetic is important too).
But sometimes symbolism is really subtle and its easy to miss. And sometimes its very difficult to work symbolism into the plot and characters without slapping the reader over the head with clunky motifs, metaphors and similes.
So, I thought today I’d share a few tips I’ve gleaned over several years of writing, offering you some inspiration on how to add symbolism to your novel!
At first glance, flowers might seem an odd choice for symbolism, but they actually aren’t. For centuries, flowers have been seen as having a “language” of their own. A lot of this “language” isn’t known by the general populace, but the cool thing about flowers is that a lot of their symbolism is unconsciously recognised in the Western world. Red roses, for example? They symbolism romantic love, and most people could tell you that. The calla lily symbolises purity and innocence, which is why they are often used in bridal bouquets. Daffodils symbolise new life. Daisies symbolise youth and exuberance.
Example: In my novel Stars Fill Infinity, one of the main characters is enamoured with flower symbolism and so I often use flowers to express her emotions. It helps add a layer of depth, not only to the symbolism and theme of my book, but also to my character. So, do some research on flowers and see if you can incorporate flower language into your novel!
Names can be used as very obvious forms of symbolism and a lot of authors implement it in their stories. It can be used to cement an aspect of a character’s personality, their position in life, or it can compliment or contradict the novel’s theme or the character’s arc. Sometimes characters have more than one name, each name appropriate for different stages of life or their current situation. Other characters change their names, and that can symbolise a new life and identity. Maybe they change their name to honour a characteristic they hold dear.
Example: The characters in The Pilgrim’s Progress have plainly allegorical names, such as Christian, Faithful, Hopeful and Mercy. Charles Darnay from A Tale of Two Cities, changes his name to escape from his cruel uncle. Justice in my novel, changes his name to make a statement about his belief and passion. Marissa Meyer often names the heroines and heroes of her Lunar Chronicles after symbols in the fairy tales they are based on, such as Cinder (Cinderella), Scarlet (Little Red Riding Hood), Wolf (Little Red Riding Hood) and Thorne (Rapunzel).
Clothing can be used in a manner of ways. It can show a character’s social position—princes dress very differently to peasants—their personality, ethnicity, religion, era and a hundred other things. People like to use clothes as a way to judge a person and gauge their personality.
Example: In Stars Fill Infinity, Justice wears a black jacket, which serves several purposes in the storyline. One, it acts as a symbol of his revolution and his authority. Two, it conceals his identity and past. It once had a family coat of arms embroidered on it, which he has cut out to keep his secrets safe. It also hides the scars along his arms. When worn by another character, the jacket symbolises sacrifice and when worn by a third character, it is described as making him look like a raven, coming to feast on carrion. That jacket is quite an interesting thing 😀
Nature is probably one of the most overused forms of symbolism—bordering on cliché at times. However, it can still be used to strengthen your novel, though you might want to use it more subtly.
Rain usually represents sorrow, a full-blown storm representing chaos and extreme emotion. Sunshine in English woods tends to convey peace and tranquillity. Tangled forests show fear, trepidation and a sense of horror.
Example: Charlotte Bronte uses nature as symbolism in Jane Eyre. After Jane agrees to marry Mr Rochester, a lightning bolt strikes an old tree, splitting it in half and foreshadowing Jane and Mr Rochester’s imminent separation.
Settings can also be used to strengthen a mood in your writing. Some writers use settings very loosely, missing a lot of potential that can be gleaned from choosing the right settings for the right dialogue or actions and having the characters interact with their surroundings, but used correctly, it can be very powerful.
Example:In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien uses the “golden leaves” of Lothlorien to show that the elves have entered their autumn ages. They are fading away and the leaves of Lothlorien help strengthen and foreshadow the eventual departure of the elves to the West, leaving Middle-Earth in a kind of winter (this is shown in the movies by the burnt oranges and reds that Arwen wears).
The setting of Ithilien, at the border of Mordor, serves to symbolise all that Sauron has poisoned and destroyed, but it also serves to symbolise that not everything he has taken hold of has been completely destroyed, showing Frodo and Sam that there is still hope.
In Cress, by Marissa Meyer, Cress’ satellite is a symbol of captivity, as it keeps her from her home, her family and Earth, which she desires to explore. But it also symbolises safety, as nothing can hurt her there. Thus, when she is presented with the opportunity to leave the satellite, she must decide between safe captivity or potentially painful freedom.
Colours are another internationally recognised symbol. In Western cultures, we equate yellow with enthusiasm and cheerfulness, pink with femininity and delicacy, white with purity, goodness and innocence, black with evil, mourning and death. Purple is the traditional colour of royalty, red is a passionate colour, green celebrates new life and vibrancy, blue can represent calm, peace or misery.
Example: Enjolras, in the musical Les Miserables, famously draws the comparison between red and revolutionary fervour, the spilling of blood and the sun rising on a new day, while Marius compares red to desire and love. Both uses of the colour red as symbolism strengthen the image of emotional intensity the characters actions and words have already given us.
My final category is simply “emblems” or “symbols”. These might seem slightly too obvious, but they can still be used powerfully. There are a lot of symbols which we regularly see and comprehend without thinking too deeply—a cross as a symbol for sacrifice or death, heart shapes for love, a fish as a symbol for Christianity, the phoenix for resurrection…
Example: In my novel When Infinity is Empty, I used the recurring symbol of an anchor to describe hope, since anchors have traditionally been paired with hope. When a prisoner in the old Port Arthur prison, a character wears his wife’s anchor pendant as a symbol of the hope that still lives in him, but later hides this necklace and forgets about it and subsequently loses hope. Years later, he gives the pedant to another character, a symbol of the second character receiving hope for the first time in his life.
I also used the symbol of a broken anchor, which served as a foil or contradiction for the hope the anchor provided in other parts of the story. The broken anchor was the antagonist’s symbol of death, cynicism and despair.
What about you? Do you struggle with using symbolism? Do you love using it as much as I do? Have you tried any of these methods before? Do you have any special methods of your own?