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.
Symbolism should enhance the characters, plot, and essence of your story first.
Everything else is secondary.
What are your thoughts about writing symbolism?