The thing about symbolism is that everything can be a symbol. Think of a symbol as anything that has a deeper meaning beyond its appearance. Symbolism is common in classical books, but its usage has increased as writers understand it can be a powerful tool for passing their message along to the reader.
Some might think it’s not worth it to incorporate symbolism in your story, as most people will not pick up on the symbols. While this might be true for some of your future readers, those who do understand you’re using symbolism will appreciate the nuances of your work.
Symbolism is not mandatory. I don’t think any publisher is going to reject your book simply because you don’t use symbolism. However, it might be useful for your story, as it gives it a deeper meaning and lets your reader connect and relate to your story in their own way.
The first thing you need to know about symbolism is that two people will definitely interpret your symbol in different ways. It’s our personalities and the way we perceive reality that makes us interpret certain symbols the way we do. For some people, red represents love. For others, it represents jealousy. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to what emotion a certain symbol makes us feel. Therefore, if you want your symbol to mean something very specific, it’s going to have to be stated somewhere in your story, even if just later on. This adds a certain kind of suspense to your narrative, and also a possibility for your readers to feel like you tied loose ends.
Symbolism can be useful for foreshadowing. Little things that apparently have no relevant connection to our character can have deeper meanings that give them an exponential relevance when put in perspective. One of the most cliche things in writing happens when certain writers begin their stories by describing the weather. This is a cliche because, 99% of the times, when it’s raining cats and dogs, one of the characters (usually the main) will be feeling extremely sad or something bad will be happening to them. This is an example of how symbolism can be used to foreshadowing and creating the mood to how actions are going to enroll from then on.
There are several ways of writing symbolism into your story, but there are also some things you should keep in mind when trying to write symbols.
- First and foremost, you need to do a little research on what you’re going to use as a symbol. There are some cases in which research isn’t really necessary, like when your symbols depend only on your story, and in this case, you can trust your reader’s capacity to interpret them correctly. For instance, if your character’s ex-lover never liked to see them in shorts and they continue to refuse to wear shorts because they’re still too connected to them, you can trust your reader to understand that when this person starts wearing shorts again, they’re starting to get over that past relationship. However, there are some situations in which you do need some research. When you’re using, let’s say, colors as symbols, you can’t just pretend blue means death and think your readers will get it. Some colors, objects, etc, have specific meanings attached to them, because they usually appeal to everyone in an almost universal way. However, there are some images or colors that have more than one meaning worldwide accepted, and you need to adapt your symbols to your situations. For instance, love is usually represented by the color red, but it can also mean jealousy or death when compared to color of blood. In these situations, you can immediately eliminate one of the possibilities. If you’re depicting a happy setting, your readers will most likely not associate red to death, but let them decide whether your character is in love or jealous. It gives readers a kind of freedom they can’t get any other way.
- Simple ideas work. There is a common misconception that symbolism must be a complex little thing that will get into your readers brain and make it see things where they don’t exist. Wrong. Symbols can be the most simple things. As long as they make the reader feel something or associate it with something, it will work.
- Stereotypes work. This is one of the few times when stereotypes can be your best friends. Stereotypes are preconceptions that people will have, almost universally, in their minds a priori. If you want your readers to know your character is fat, tall, and has a full white beard, it’s okay to use Santa Claus to describe him. That’s the preconception we all have in our minds about Santa Claus, and people will get your point. However, try not to use any stereotypes that might come off as offensive.
- Don’t use symbolism to reveal something too important. Remember readers are likely to perceive symbols in different ways, and therefore, it’s not always safe to try to tell them important stuff using symbols, as readers can create wrong ideas about what you mean and see the following parts of your book as inconsistencies.
For further reading on Symbolism:
- Enhance your Writing with Symbolism
- (Metaphor and) Symbolism in Fiction
- Symbolism and All That
- On Writing Symbolism Into Your Story
- Symbolism - How to Make it Work in Your Writing
Below this cut, you’ll find some images that you can use as symbols in your writing.