Writing Tips

Writing More Meaningful Symbolism

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?

Villains Don’t Always Need to be Humanized

Two of my favourite TV shows aired their finale episodes last month. The first show is Hannibal (unfortunately, cancelled by NBC) and the second is Pretty Little Liars. While they are drastically different shows for different audiences, both shows feature a main villain that is portrayed as intelligent, organized, murderous, slightly supernatural and sees people as toys they can control like a puppeteer.

While Hannibal Lecter from Hannibal is impossible to relate to or sympathize with, I understood his motivations much better than A from Pretty Little Liars, who fell apart when the writers tried to humanize her actions.

Key takeaways from the video:

Why Hannibal Was a Great Villain Without Being Humanized

1. His curiosity about humanity makes humanity curious about him.

It’s interesting to watch someone with superhuman abilities orchestrate complicated events and inflict chaos simply to understand what you and I naturally know.

2. He’s an unknown quantity, a puzzle you try to solve (but can’t).

We naturally want to understand the unknown, but we also fear the unknown. Hannibal represents the combination of our fear and intrigue.

3. His actions drive the story, taking it to unexpected and fun places.

Hannibal is motivated by his curiosity first and foremost. While this motivation sounds simple, the cataclysmic events that follow his actions thankfully aren’t.

4. His portrayal is consistent.

Everything he does comes back to him being the devil trying to play God, especially with his need to destroy Will Graham and re-fashion him in his own image.

Why A Was Ruined Because She Was Humanized

1. She reveals that she had a bad childhood.

Who hasn’t?

2. Misunderstood because she was transgender and unstable.

She was sent to a mental institution presumably because of being transgender and also because she was seen as a threat to her siblings. I also hated how they handled the transgender storyline, but that’s another discussion altogether.

3. Hated the four girls because they were ‘happy’ A’s sister disappeared.

How does that justify A’s torturing them for years? Other people have done worse things to A’s family, yet she chooses to focus on the four main girls.

4. Addicted to the game of tormenting people.

Come again?

In Conclusion

A’s mystique was ruined because of a weak origin story designed to (and failed to) humanize her. The reasons given for her actions did not justify the extent of damage that A has caused, and A came out looking more like a caricature rather than a character. Meanwhile, Hannibal’s lack of humanization made him frightening because it’s in his nature to create chaos. It’s just what he does, and you can’t even exploit that.

Villains don’t always need to be humanized. Sometimes, being a complete unknown quantity is scarier than any convoluted backstory you can spin.


Millie’s Note: Who are your favourite humanized or non-humanized villains? Which kind do you prefer?

How to Overcome Writing Perfectionism Using Empathy

I’ve come to terms with the fact that writing perfectionism is always going to be a part of my personality. It’s not so much about killing the perfectionism as it is about managing it. And the best way to do this, as I outline in the video, is to use a little empathy:

When it’s time to edit your work, imagine that you’re editing somebody else’s work instead of your own. Imagine that this is the work of your best friend, who you want to see succeed and realize his/her dream of being a published author.

Would you be as hard on your friend as you are on yourself? Would you tell him/her to destroy months of work, re-plot the entire novel, kill off a character, just because you didn’t like A, B, C?

Probably not.

This was—hands down—the quickest way to get out of my own head and manage writing perfectionism.