Way back at the beginning of term (I’m in the Transnational Creative Writing Masters Programme at Stockholm University) we had an awesome workshop from Cassie Gonzales. She was talking about character needs and goals, as well as symbolism.
Now, symbolism isn’t something I’d really thought about putting into my writing before this point. Not intentionally, anyway. Because I was a pantser, not a plotter, and most of the heavier stuff comes into play when you start actually planning out your writing (more on why you should be Team Plotter here)
But symbols are actually a really powerful tool in your writing, and here’s why:
1. Objects can signify things without the characters having to talk about them
The exercise we did was this: Character A walks into Character’s B’s workplace and tries to convince them to get back together.
Character A does this without directly asking them to get back together.
(This is Cassie’s exercise, which I hope she doesn’t mind me paraphrasing here.)
So other than having your character perform some sort of elaborate mime (yawn) how can you achieve a conversation without words? Or, at the very least, without explicit words?
Symbolism, of course.
So I had Character A hand Character B an old locket, and ask her if she wants it back. But he was asking something more than that, he was asking if she wanted him back.
This was the first time I think I’d achieved any level of subtext in my writing (my style is quite wham bam thank you ma’am) and it felt pretty awesome. This is what proper writers do, I thought to myself. They have their characters discuss something whilst forcing them to do something else.
Objects can symbolise a multitude of things in your writing. They can ask questions, they can give answers, they can share fears, hopes, dreams.
I’m not talking about the GCSE English “the conch in the Lord of the Flies symbolises authority” stuff that makes you want to snap your laptop shut and go for a short walk off a long cliff.
I’m talking about conveying a deeper meaning through objects than you could through words.
Having your character ask their ex-partner if they want to get back together is one thing. Having them hand them a symbol of their relationship and having Character B throw it back in their face is something else entirely.
Which brings us into…
2. You can also use symbolism to discuss something without discussing it at all
Let’s take another example that’s often cited in a lot of Creative Writing books. Hills like White Elephants (full text here).
There’s some beautiful symbolism in this story, where a couple (an American and the woman with him) sit at the train station, drinking beer, and looking out over hills that look like white elephants.
But they’re not talking about hills, really. They’re talking about getting an abortion.
The hills are symbolic in the story: a white elephant is something that no-one wants, and it serves in place of the real topic of discussion, the woman’s baby, and the abortion The American is trying to convince her to have.
“They’re lovely hills,” she says. “They don’t really look like white elephants.”
Is she telling him that she wants to keep the baby? That the hills, like the baby, are lovely, and they aren’t white elephants at all, because she, in fact, wants it?
Is the baby the ‘elephant in the room’?
Does the setting of the story symbolise their indecision, their existence in this kind of purgatory they’ve found themselves in?
The symbolism creates layers upon the story. It makes the reader focus harder on the clues of their body language, to read between the lines. What is she saying? What is he saying?
A conversation about getting an abortion makes for a fairly interesting story. A story about hills that’s actually a conversation about getting an abortion makes for a fascinating story.
2. You can also use symbolism to show your character’s truths and their goals
Symbols can help us turn the conceptual into the concrete.
Your character’s truth is the thing that pushes their (positive) character development arc. It’s the opposite to the lie they believe and the story is going to be about them (ultimately) rejecting the lie and finding the truth (find out about it on K.M Weiland’s awesome blog post here)
Their ‘Truth’ might be something solid, like “I can write a novel!” or it could be something abstract, like “I am worthy of love”
If it’s abstract, here’s where your symbolism can come into full effect. It can turn that ‘up there in the air’ concept into something physical they can hold in their hands.
For example, for one of my characters, her goal is just to be equal to men (hints on when this is staged). Owning her own property at the end of the novel (something women weren’t previously allowed to do) would be a good symbol of her achievement of that goal, and it would also symbolise her rejection of the lie (that men and women are not and can never be, equal).
Let’s say you have a character that hates herself for the way she looks and has never owned a mirror. Her achievement of her truth (that she’s worthy of love) could be symbolised by her buying a mirror at the end of the book and hanging it where she’d have to walk past and see herself every day.
Symbolism helps us turn abtracts truths and goals into something concrete, without giving away any of the layers.
3. You can also use symbolism to give us a deeper insight into your character’s emotions
We’ve all heard show don’t tell so many times you probably block it out by now. Yes, yes, you mutter, I KNOW.
But showing through symbolism is a lot more meaningful than showing through description.
Let’s say you’ve got Character A and Character B, and Character B wants to work out if Character A loves them. You’ve got a tonne of options here, but here are two:
(a) You could have Character A blushing, acting coy, twirling their hair. That’ll make Character B realise they like them, sure.
(b) Or you could have Character A order their coffee just the way they like it.
Now I realise both of these are heavy-handed, but you get the idea.
Both of these symbolise that Character A likes Character B. But one of them does it better than the other.
The action in (b) tells the reader a lot more about Character A and their feelings for Character B, without doing nearly as much grunt work. And it feels more authentic (and slightly less cliche).
Which leaves us with…
4. Symbolism means you don’t have to tell us the full story
Not all books end with a Harry Potter style epilogue that tells us that “all was well.” Some of them end on a question. A holding of hands. A lingering look. A closing door.
These are symbols, and they are often found at the end for a reason… because they can be interpreted in a multitude of ways.
The closing door could be the end of something, or it could be shutting the dangers of the world out for the safety of home.
Holding hands could be a commitment to be together, or a final farewell.
I’ll never forget reaching the end of Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass and reading the scene where Lyra and Will promise to return to the same bench at Midsummer in Oxford every year, even though they wouldn’t be able see each other. It was symbol of their eternal love for one another and that made my small teenage heart drop out of my stomach (it also made me cry. A LOT.)
Symbolism allows your readers to keep dreaming, to keep seeing your characters as living, breathing beings that exist outside of your book’s pages.
How often have you closed a book and just sat there for a moment, your mind wandering back into the universe you’ve just left and the characters you’ve left behind with it?
Symbolism keeps these dreams alive with all the ‘maybes’ it permits you to leave them with.
That, my friend, is why symbolism is beautiful.