How to Use the Literary Technique of Symbolism to Become a Master Storyteller
Harness the power of culture, color, and myth to enliven your creative writing
After spending over two decades as a high school English teacher, I have studied countless great works of literature, and the craftsmanship which goes into these masterpieces. I have also had a unique opportunity that many writers find enviable: due to my profession, I get to see firsthand, every day, which literary texts significantly move an audience. And this audience is truly one of the most difficult to reach: adolescents.
Raised in a Bradburian society where the desire for instantaneous stimulation is rising and literacy rates are falling, it takes truly great writing to engage these often reluctant readers.
As writers, we all want the moment I saw unfold during one of my class’s study of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's classic novel Crime and Punishment. A student in my Honors World Literature class said to me, “I can’t wait to read. I’ve been looking forward to this all day.” Honestly, I thought she was responding to me in the lovely sarcasm that teachers of adolescents get to hear a thousand and one times a day. She was, after all, barely making a “C” in class and had expressed to me many times her general distaste for reading. I asked her if she was, in fact, being sarcastic. To this, she replied, “No. I love this book.”
Have you heard educators talk about “teacher moments?” Well, this was one of them.
Now imagine someone saying that about your own creation.
The knowledge I have gained through my 22-year study of great literature has proven immensely useful to me both as a writer and teacher. It helps me craft stories rich with meaning, adding a three-dimensionality to the characters and plots I create. For my students, my knowledge brings to light the layers and layers of glue that a writer uses to hold the construct of a story together.
Fiction is more than just a story, I tell them — it is an art. Just as an artist uses the elements of image, shape, size, shadow, and light, so does a writer use a palette of techniques to create a meaningful whole. Any good writer knows writing an exemplary work does not occur haphazardly. It may be motivated by a sudden inspiration, but it usually involves hours, months, or years of work and painstaking attention to detail.
One of the most important details a writer can include to create masterful fiction is symbolism. From the beginning of time, environment, culture, and literature have birthed a universal symbology that blankets our world with hidden meaning and influence. Great writers can use this world of symbols to add substance and depth to their characters and themes.
Award winner poetry and fiction writer Ginny Wiehardt explains the value and distinction that symbolism can give to a piece of writing: “Symbolism allows a writer to convey something to their audience in a poetic way instead of explaining it outright. This indirect approach allows an author to create nuance and complexity.”
How Can the Use of Symbolism Improve the Quality of Your Writing?
- It evokes a sense of curiosity and mystery in the writer’s perceptions and judgments.
- It lends a sense of universality to characters and themes, increasing the likelihood that the text will be widely read and well-received.
- It increases the probability that the reader will grasp the compelling themes and ideas a writer puts forth.
- It provides rich clues that aid in strong characterization.
- It enhances the overarching mood or tone the writer tries to create.
- It enhances the reader’s visualization of feelings and conflicts in a piece of literature.
While symbology is almost endless in scope, I will give you tactics to harness its powers to their best advantage for use in your own literary creations.
The Symbolic Potential of Names
Many famous writers have used a character’s name to act as a symbolic representation of their character’s personality or personal conflicts. For example in Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment, the protagonist’s name, Raskolnikov, is highly symbolic. The story revolves around a man torn apart by moral and religious conflict, mostly due to his premeditated act of murder. In Russian, the word “raskol” means schism (a division or separation), thus illuminating the two warring sides of the character and the ideologies which compete for dominance in his life.
Writers can use this technique to foreshadow and cement a character’s personality or to highlight the main conflicts of said character. The whole inspiration for this article came from a writing group where a novelist was asking other members of the group what name to give to a character who was mean and untalkative. One of the group members advised the writer to research names and their symbolism. So, I did the work to see what I could come up with. In German, the word “silent’ or “quiet” is “leise.” In Dutch, the word “cruel” is “wreed.” So, what about a character named Liesel Wreed?
As I take you through various ways to add depth to your writing through the element of symbolism, I will use my own fictional character to show you how layers of symbolism can add strength and reinforcement to the central qualities and ideas you wish to emphasize in a work.
The character I will use for illustration is a character whose childhood trauma has left them stagnant, lingering in the past and unable to move forward to make a productive change in her life. Let’s look at how we can use name symbolism here.
In Spanish, the word for feminine “child” is “ niña.” In Welsh, the word for “chained” is “cadwyn.” Perhaps, I could call my character Nina Cadwyn to represent a girl chained to her past.
Strategies you can use to embrace name symbolism in your writings
- Pinpoint the character traits or struggles that your protagonist undergoes in the text you are composing. Then, search out names that display those qualities.
- Browse books of baby names and their meanings. I, for instance, wanted my son to be a fighter, someone who never gives up. I used one of these such books to give him his name Ethan. The name originates from Hebrew and means “strong and firm.”
- You can also simply use Google to find the connections you want to make. For instance, you can search out what a word means in different languages. I would be leery of Google translate, however. Often words do not translate directly because they are not taking linguistic features such as part of speech into consideration. One site you might try is IDL or Indifferent Languages. This can also provide a starting point for inspiration. Keep in mind that you do not have to use the exact word for word translation—remember, “raskol” was only a piece of the name “Raskolnikov.” Rather, use the translation as a point of origin, and play with word forms and variations to come up with something you like.
- Instead of languages, you can use object symbolism to come up with a fitting title for your protagonist. Say, for example, your character is a source of hope for others, a mentor of sorts. What about the name “Dawn”? Is your character a brilliant villainess? Perhaps the name “Raven” would be appropriate. This bird, for instance, is one of the smartest animals and has a universal history of connection to evil. In an article entitled “Ten Fascinating Facts About Ravens” by Joy Lanzendorfer, she cites that the French associated these birds with the souls of wicked priests and that in Germany these creatures were believed to be the “incarnation of damned souls or…Satan himself.” Possible resources to find these symbolic associations are The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols or Signs and Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings, both of which can be purchased through Amazon.
Consider the Setting
Settings can be so much more than a place for the action to unfold. Manipulating the elements of time and place using symbolism can add dimension to a story and create a more visual representation of the conflicts and themes in a novel. You can manipulate details such as temperature, weather, geography, time period, and many other elements in your fictional environment to achieve this goal.
Strategies you can use to embrace symbolic settings in your writings
- Lower the temperature. Does your writing involve lonely characters? Crumbling relationships? Create settings where there is a decided lack of heat. You can make the setting winter, or more creatively brainstorm ways to include this element of chill. Perhaps it is summer, and a husband ratchets up the air conditioner, refusing to listen to his wife’s pleas to turn up the thermostat. Perhaps the wife steals the covers each night, leaving her husband to suffer the chill of a drafty house. The possibilities are endless.
- Turn up the heat. Is sexual passion the basis of your story’s main idea? Is a character nervous, anxious, suffering from inner turmoil? Place him or her in settings which symbolically show this excess human energy or emotion. What about letting the events unfold in the sizzling summer of the deep South? Perhaps the time period alone can accomplish this connection; for example, a naturally hot setting in a time before air conditioning? What about a character whose occupation requires him or her to be in a hot environment, such as the constant heat of a kitchen or a firefighter who plunges into searing hot buildings?
- Use landscapes and geographical features to create symbolism. What about the idea of oppression? Is one of your characters in a suffocating relationship? Struggling to overcome societal limitations that are keeping him or her from fully embracing their true potential? Perhaps a mountainous region might work for the setting, where physical barriers are a part of the natural landscape and high altitudes make it difficult to breathe.
- Use other elements of the setting, such as wind, clouds, rainfall, or amount of sunlight to create symbolic parallels to characters, conflicts, or themes in your piece of fiction. For example, is your character struggling with religion? An evil deed? The Sun is often used as a symbol for the divine. Could the action occur in a place where the warmth, hope, and life that the Sun brings is absent? What about a character who is a Christ-like figure, bringing light and hope to other characters in a novel? Place him or her in a sunny setting to symbolize the warmth of his personality and the radiant effects of his or her inspirational words and actions.
- Use the element of smell to add additional emphasis on character traits or conflicts. To illustrate, let’s take my new character Nina Cadwyn, living metaphorically in the past and remaining helplessly stagnant in her life. I could make her home old and musty. I could manipulate elements in my fictional environment to include the ever-present smell of rot, mold, or mildew to show her inability to successfully move forward.
Use Color Associations
Color is also often used symbolically to accentuate the main characters and relationships in a piece of fiction. Writers should study the symbology associated with certain colors in order to add an extra layer of depth to their characters and events. Obviously, there are associations such as black for mourning and depression and red for passion, but what about other colors?
Strategies you can use to embrace color symbolism in your writings
- Use purple to show dominance, authority, and power. Arrogant characters, for example, could be symbolically connected to this color because it represents royalty. Think Prince and his penchant for this color, i.e. Purple Rain. Live Science’s article, “Why is the Color Purple Associated With Royalty” by Remy Melina reveals the history of this association, stating that the “rarity and cost of the dye originally used to produce [purple]” made it the trademark color of the elite and that “Queen Elizabeth I forbade anyone except close members of the royal family to wear it.”
- Use brown or gray to represent decline or stagnation. Take again, my character Nina Cadwyn, living in the past, ceasing to advance because of childhood trauma. Make her live in a dusty setting, add the smell of rot or mold, and now make the color she wears or is surrounded by brown or gray. These colors each have different symbolic values, but both work to enhance the idea of times gone by. Remember old photographs of sepia or black and white, i.e. gray? Brown conjures images of decay and rot, such as the color or dying flowers or falling autumn leaves. Gray is also associated with aging and decline: gray hair, gray ash, or the gray-faced tones of death.
Objects, Animals, and Various Other Symbolic Sundries
Successful authors use a countless number of different objects and features to represent key ideas in their fiction. They use the power of line, shape, animals, and other objects that have powerful cultural representations in our world.
For example, in the feminist novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, the protagonist Edna Pontellier commits suicide by surrendering herself to the forces of the Gulf. She chooses to end her life because she is tired of subjugating her passions and desires as a woman to the exacting demands of a society who will only allow her the identity of wife and mother. Unable to leave her stifling marriage for the true love of her life — who, by the way, abandons her in order to preserve her good name in society — Edna is hopeless and despondent.
Her walk to the shore uses many symbolic elements to mirror her conflicts and feelings. She spies a “bird with a broken wing…beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” When she arrives at the shore, she casts off her “unpleasant, pricking” bathing suit and stands naked in the open air. The “foamy wavelets…coiled like serpents about her ankles.” One of the last things Edna hears as she walks farther and farther to her death is “the barking of an old dog chained to the sycamore tree.”
Consider the myriad objects and elements Chopin uses to signify the predominant theme of alienation and oppression. The disabled bird is used to represent Edna’s inability to achieve the freedoms she so desperately desires. The “pricking” bathing suit reminds the reader of the painful acts of propriety and conformity that one must be “clothed” in to gain societal acceptance. Her nakedness symbolizes her ridding herself of these agonizing requirements. Finally, the coiling wavelets create imagery of a world that has shackled and confined her, and the chained dog strengthens the power of this sentiment.
This conglomeration of objects paints the powerful image of a soul in servitude and the tragic results that culminate from its prison-like confinement.
Strategies you can use to embrace object symbolism in your writings
- Use objects, shapes, and animals to show ambition, power, or force. For example, you could make use of symbolic elements such as elevators, stairs, or arrows somehow to represent a character who desires to move forward, to conquer, or to lead. Other options might be to include things such as eagles, lions, or fire.
- Use directional objects to show a character’s search for something or someone that he or she thinks will provide happiness or meaning in life. For instance, you could embrace the use of keys, roads, a compass, or a map to symbolically relay this character’s metaphorical quest.
- Use objects to show trauma, oppression, or stagnation. Let’s look back one last time at my character Nina Cadwyn. She is symbolically chained to her childhood past, unable to break free or progress, so I could use symbolic objects or elements such as a broken ladder, a dull knife, a baby’s nursery, a lock, or even an old photo album to cement these conflicts. I could even create a limp or a scar to represents her inability to move forward or erase the power of a moment in time.
Finally, here’s a helpful reference to common symbolic references in literature.
The Bottom Line
Writer Diana Wynne Jones says, “If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine.”
The beauty of literature lies in the “infinite blur” that symbology creates in a piece of fiction. As a writer, I don’t want my reader to see one color of the rainbow; I want them to see the whole rainbow, where each color blends effortlessly into the next in a stunning enigma of beauty. I want them to ponder each color; why it is where it is, and where it begins and ends. The questions it poses give it a greater beauty than the colors alone.
This is what symbology can add to a piece of fiction. If you can harness its powers, you can create your own rainbow of light and wonder for the reader to follow.
Best of luck on your journey, and I look forward to reading your masterpiece.