Writing Tips

Writing More Meaningful Symbolism

By November 12, 2016 15 Comments

Netflix’s Luke Cage was an entertaining series, and it also helped me understand how to write better symbolism.

Here’s a summary of my talking points.

Avoid Using Superficial Symbolism  

In school, I was taught to reference existing works or mythologies if I was writing symbolism. For example, a guy who was strong would be given the name Hercule. Or I would use colours to represent different character attributes. Green was the colour of greed, so a character who was greedy would carry a green purse, which became a symbol.

These techniques made sense from a literary analysis standpoint, but they failed to enhance the reader’s connection to the characters, plot, or setting. These symbols also missed out on opportunities to accomplish more than one goal and were therefore one-dimensional.

After watching Luke Cage, I realized that I needed to use less superficial symbols that could be replicated for any story, and instead write more meaningful symbols.

3 Qualities of Meaningful Symbolism

In Luke Cage, the ring that Luke was tasked to find took on a deeper meaning as Episode 5 progressed:

  • The ring became a symbol for Harlem (its past, present, and future).
  • The ring represented different qualities of the characters.
  • The ring drove Episode 5’s plot.

I concluded that meaningful symbolism should consist of three main qualities:

1. The symbol must be significant to the characters. 

It doesn’t matter if critics or readers can dissect a symbol for hours on end. If the symbol is not significant to the characters and their lives, it will lack emotional and contextual depth.

2. The symbol should be unique to the story.

Blood is not a unique symbol. It can be used to represent guilt, life, and so forth, but to characters across different stories, it’s still just blood. But if the symbol is original to your story and can’t be replicated elsewhere, it will be more memorable and create more opportunities to take your story to new heights.

Examples: the Elder Wand in Harry Potter, the Death Star in Star Wars, and the One Ring in LOTR.

3. Symbolism should accomplish more than one thing.

You can use symbols to communicate character traits, drive the plot, or reveal the history of your setting. Symbolism can reveal how characters think and feel or were transformed.

Instead of creating different symbols and using them to fulfill a multitude of purposes, one multi-purpose symbol tightens up the narrative and creates a more concentrated impact.

In Conclusion

Symbolism should enhance the characters, plot, and essence of your story first.

Everything else is secondary.

What are your thoughts about writing symbolism?

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • I like universal symbols, but I agree that you have to be careful in using them. I like to mine dream interpretations for various moods, keeping in mind that different cultures represent objects in dreams differently. My mother was convinced that dreaming of shit meant I’d make a lot of money or win the lottery or something. She considered it especially good that I’d had a dream involving lots of shit, barnyard shit smeared everywhere. Nice visuals, huh? I found her interpretation really surprising, but I learned it’s a part of Korean culture. That could be an interesting detail in a novel.

    The great thing about using time-worn symbols is that you can use the expectations surrounding them to your advantage by offering a twist.

    I like objective correlatives, some object in ‘real life’ (in scene) that offers us a more meaningful aspect of the story when read at different levels.

    Overall, I think you just have to be careful that you aren’t using symbols to do the heavy lifting for you, as mere shortcuts. Also agreed that they lose force when great in number.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Yes, that’s a good point. Universal symbols can be useful as long as they’re used well and in an unexpected and relevant way.

      If we go back to the example of blood, I think Stephen King did a great job of using blood as a symbol in ‘Carrie’ because he explicitly showed how blood related to the story. He had different characters—Carrie, her mother Margaret, to name a few—explain the significance of blood. Blood could be an omen, blood could be a sign of evil, blood sparked the climax of the novel, and the characters were aware of how blood wasn’t JUST blood. Blood therefore had context. Blood had story-specific meaning.

      I’m still thinking about how to best approach symbolism, so I appreciate you weighing in. The shit-considered-lucky is an interesting example, for sure, and relates to why I think blood was an effective symbol in ‘Carrie’. If the characters talk about their interpretation of an universal symbol and/or the symbol is important to the plot, maybe that’s how you add more depth to something that’s been used to death.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • This actually highlighted for me something about that she which I had understood subconsciously but not realized. I think Luke Cage was the only Netflix series of Marvel’s that I didn’t study well. Jessica Jones was a treasure trove – maybe I got worn out. But you are right about symbolism. I often try and represent all important characters in a story with an item or something in the story. Sometimes they get abandoned but other times I create a strong symbol in the story and it helps layer the text.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad this helped you realize something about symbolism. Yeah, Jessica Jones was a great series, and I like how Luke Cage/Jessica Jones/Daredevil all exist in the same universe. This made me wonder if there were symbols or themes that crossed over, but I haven’t found anything yet beyond some easter eggs. Do you create symbols/objects while you’re writing, or do you insert them into the story when you edit?

  • kvennarad says:

    Symbolism is something that works on a level that is not superficial. I don’t think that’s what you are talking about here, even though you are talking about things that add character depth, emotional depth, etc. The Elder Wand, Death Star, ‘One Ring’, and so on are in themselves objects that are woven into the plot, essential to the plot, their occurrence and position in the story is obvious, they have purpose; beyond that, if they are anything, they are recurring motifs. But they are not (necessarily) symbols. They can be used as metonyms or in synecdoche, true, but neither metonymy nor synecdoche is (quite) symbolism.

    Symbols often work without apparent relevance or purpose. They can raise questions, add mystery and atmosphere, evoke an emotional response or a response that does not depend on reason and intellect. Symbolism is where a writer (artist, etc.) allows the symbols themselves to act, and the action does not depend on interpretation. Green for jealousy (or red and gold for Gryffindor, green and silver for Slytherin) is a cliché, with preexisting connotations, it is unoriginal; a wand is an object of power, so it is an obvious symbol of power, the way an orb and sceptre are obvious symbols of royalty, thus using them becomes clichéed, stereotypical. Symbolism is not necessarily so obvious, so superficial. In the past, when a culture’s ‘natural’ taxonomy grouped things not by phylum and genus, but by supposed character, then flowers, gems, animals, colours, etc. could be used to ‘symbolise’ characteristics – red and gold being heroic colours, befitting a fierce gryphon. In an age when taxonomy became rational, symbols and symbolism became more intuitive, more evocative, less immediately explicable, and – or so I believe and maintain – richer.

    How do I use symbolism? Well, do I use it? Maybe I do without meaning to, maybe I do because it’s part of the way I write (which you once described as ‘visceral’). But below I am going to append my published translation of Gérard de Nerval’s sonnet ‘El Desdichado’; I would say that this is a ‘symboliste’ work.

    I am the man of shade, bereaved, inconsolate,
    The Prince of Aquitaine, with my keep overthrown;
    My only star is dead, and my star-figured lute
    Blazoned now anew with black Melancholy’s sun.

    In the night of the tomb, you who granted me peace,
    Give me back Pausilippe, the Italian brine,
    The flower that brought such joy to my heart, shorn of ease,
    Or the rose-arch’s column enwrapped with grapevine.

    Am I Love or Sun-god? Lousignan or Biron?
    My temples reddened still by kisses from the Queen,
    Here by the Siren’s sea-cave pool I had dreams…

    As a conqueror twice, I have crossed Acheron,
    Modulating in turn, on the Orphean lyre,
    All the sighs of the Saint, and the elf-maiden’s cry.

    Now, you can pick out if that poem images that are familiar – classical allusions, references to the Tarot arcana, and so on – but can you say what each of them ‘symbolises’? Do you need to? Or is the effect of this symbolism talking to you in a non-interpretive way?

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that everyone is free to experiment with symbolism, and am by no means suggesting that my understanding of writing meaningful symbols is something you have to adopt.

      However, I have to disagree with what you said here:

      “Symbols often work without apparent relevance or purpose.”

      While I agree that symbols can certainly raise questions and add atmosphere, if they ALSO had the additional benefit of meaning something (beyond their definition as objects, etc) and existing with purpose, they would become BETTER symbols.

      For example, the symbol of a green purse can definitely evoke mystery if you keep mentioning it to the reader, in the sense that the reader will be wondering, “Hey, why is this writer showing me this purse all the time, there must be something significant here”, but it does NOT enhance their understanding of the character that owns the green purse nor does it enhance any other story elements if you simply show them the green purse. It is therefore a superficial symbol.

      And of course symbolism can be superficial.

      When you talk about J.K. Rowling using “unoriginal” and “cliché” and “obvious” symbols, you’re talking about superficial symbols. However, I think she used more meaningful symbols than superficial symbols (i.e.: the Elder Wand was definitely meaningful, in that it drove the plot, showcased character traits and transformation, and represented different things to different characters), and she used them very well and in a way that impacted both the readers AND the characters.

      I don’t think you have to make it clear what anything symbolizes, but for symbols to be meaningful and impactful, it would help if you did.

      • kvennarad says:

        “Symbols often work without apparent relevance or purpose.”

        I hear what you’re saying in reply to that, but I think what you may be offering instead is like insisting that readers are somehow obliged to consciously interpret everything they read, and to align that interpretation with the writer’s intended meaning. Many works of literature simply can’t be read like that – you would go mad if you tried to catch everything in, say, James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ – and a reader has simply to let it flow over them.

        What you said about the Elder wand, by the way, proved my point. It was an object germane to the plot, first and foremost. That fact alone diminishes its role as any kind of symbol.

        • Millie Ho says:

          Citing ‘Ulysses’ is irrelevant in this case because it’s a modernist novel and fundamentally different from Harry Potter and Luke Cage. It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

          Nah, I never said anyone is obliged to interpret what they read. Everyone is free to do their own thing. See previous answer.

          • kvennarad says:

            I cited ‘Ulysses’ because it’s a difficult novel, not because it’s a modernist novel. I cited it as an example of something that would drive a reader barmy if they had to check every allusion etc. As for the rest, I think you and I will, for once, have to disagree. Actually I think we can survive that. 🙂

  • theryanlanz says:

    Hi there Millie. Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured as a guest post on http://www.ryanlanz.com on Dec 17th. As usual, it has your credit/bio/link (to the blog post). Thanks!

  • Symbolism is interesting. Like most tools of the trade, I always thought of it a bit like spice. Too much of something and the taste would be off, but what too much is would be subjective.

    I encountered a case of what appeared to be superficial symbolism recently that I actually found interesting. An author had used white (which culturally would have the specific connotations of a morally upright character in this particular context) for the attire of an individual with complete disdain for human life and suffering. The contrast was part of a larger point the author tends to make. When this “false” individual was placed next to the allegedly real thing, the flaws of the real thing were that much more apparent. So I suppose it is multilayered symbolism.

    The author had done all this to show how the morally ambiguous main character really is the better person. The characters in question are Xiao Gongzi, chengbi, and Shi yi lang, from Xin Xiao Shiyi lang.

    I suppose where I am going with this is saying that I agree with you, and that symbolism should be meaningful. 🙂

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for your comment, Fredrik, and for the example of superficial symbolism. So interesting how you can see the flaws more clearly when two contrasting things are placed near each other. That makes total sense. I’ll have to think about this kind of symbolism (or is it imagery?) a bit more, so thanks for the brain food. 🙂

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