Simplifying Symbolism

Symbolism goes hand-in-hand with implication in foreshadowing. This doesn’t mean that all implication is symbolism or even that all symbolism is implication. For example, someone wearing a religious symbol is often an indicator that they belong to that faith rather than an implication, though some religious symbols have entered fashion and are therefore not always indicative of religious belief. However, nor is all symbolism an actual symbol, it can also be a symbolic act, which can be a conspicuous act such as a heroic deed or a seemingly smaller thing like dominant body language. It’s important to remember when we talk about symbolism that it refers to silent implication, rather than an actual physical symbol.

An example of a physical symbol might be if two characters are staring each other down and then one looks away. It is generally assumed that the one that looks away first has the less dominant personality, but this isn’t always true a person may choose to look away to give another the chance to win for some ulterior motive. For instance, in the case of a monarch someone of a ‘lower’ social situation may choose to look away first because the monarch looking away first could be construed as a weakness in the monarchy, looking away is a symbolic act of deference to their position. To outstare the monarch would be a symbolic act of defiance. Any of these three reasons or numerous others could be suggestive of a future events in a story. An obvious possible outcome might be conflict between these two characters if the character who is ‘below’ the monarch is more dominant in some way. Alternatively they could become great friends.

As this is a symbolic act we wouldn’t then tell the reader in the prose what this means we’d leave it for them to interpret. As there are different interpretations to a symbolic act we can’t guarantee that they’ll interpret it the same way we imagined it, largely because it also depends upon how they interpret the characters. This is part of what makes fiction enjoyable for readers, the ability to interpret characters actions which can create a deeper connection then simply telling them that a character is something or something else.

Physical symbols can be a little trickier because sometimes attention needs to be both drawn too them and away at the same time. By this I mean they need to appear but we don’t always want the reader to immediately go ‘ah-ha’. Sometimes we want it to be subtle something that they might chance at the time but the significance won’t become apparent until we reveal the significance. There was one reveal I missed in the original Victorian Mistress where it is mentioned that Bran and Josef have the same leaves carved on their furniture because Josef is a carpenter and made it all. Does the story suffer for this? It’s not my place to say but the readers, however readers don’t appear to have enjoyed the story less because of this. So if we don’t quite get these right but people enjoy the story we don’t need to panic. But it’s the subtleness of these symbols that make them so tricky, and they’re often picked up by readers more in rereading. This doesn’t mean they won’t see any of the symbolism but they might not see every instance.

Symbolism is often becomes more significant when it is repeated, often a symbol is repeated as part of the main plot or a sub-plot, sometimes to link things together. Perhaps a character has a ‘where have I seen that before’ moment. Such a symbol can be anything from a company logo to something vague such as things loosely related to an idea, roses for love might be an example. There is nothing inherently love related in a rose it’s simply an association that had been made by some societies. A character who is associated with roses may come to be associated with love by some readers or simply as a character who grows roses by others.

The interpretation of symbolism often relies on the genre of the story too; a romance story or a story featuring a romance plot is more likely to lead to links between roses and love than a story that features not romance. This doesn’t mean we couldn’t make this link if we wanted to, simply that readers might more quickly observe romantic symbolism in a romantic story. Genre creates certain expectations; in war stories death symbolism will be leapt upon, sci-fi stories often feature symbolism of cultural clashes or the old versus the new, in fantasy stories magic and myth symbolism comes to the fore. This is not a judgement on a genre, or trying to put them in a box, there is no rule against genre blending and bending. We simply have to recognise that some of our symbolism might become more prominent due to our genre choice.

What is most important is that we recognise that simply because we put something symbolic in a story doesn’t mean the reader will interpret it the same way. Not should we expect them to because reading is an individual experience based as much on exterior factors as the contents of our book.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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