Symbol Definition (Literature)
What are literary symbols and how can you use them to add depth to your writing?
Sept. 14, 2020 · 4 Min Read
Writers often think that symbolism as a literary device is cliché and cheesy; however, if used correctly, symbols can be stirring. This article defines and gives examples of symbolism in literature. It also explains how symbols can be successfully implemented in writing.
Definition of Symbolism as a Literary Device
A symbol is any aspect within a work of fiction that’s meaning extends beyond the literal. A symbol can be a person, an action, an object, a location, a phrase—anything that is a representation of something else. Additionally, symbols are often utilized in patterns. This broad interpretation means that symbols can be either subtle, obvious, or somewhere in between. They are used in different contexts to convey different messages and emotions, yet they always serve to add an additional layer of depth.
Examples of Symbolism in Literature
Common symbols in literature include the following:
Orange / Brown: Autumn
Black: Death, evil
Red: Love, romance
Scythe / dark hood: Personification of death
Hourglass: Time / impermanence
Scepter: A ruler’s authority
Chessboard: Competition / rivalry / struggle
Birth: Cycle of life
Astronomical activity (meteor / shooting star etc.): Divinity / divine intervention
In creative writing, symbols can lend additional weight to a story. They also reinforce the reader’s sense of accomplishment, an important aspect that the writer should always take into consideration. Basically, a novel is more impactful when the reader can engage with it—such as when he or she identifies a symbol.
From a merely structural approach, symbols can be identified by:
• a pattern of appearance
• seemingly out-of-place mentions or descriptions of something.
In the first instance, the writer repeats a symbol frequently to drive home a point, change a perception, or foreshadow an event. For example, the fantastic David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas) often uses a meteor’s descent to link the seemingly disparate parts of his novels together. Of course, his books aren’t just linked together by a single symbol—he is a master of writing, after all. Yet the meteor often reflects his narrative structure (often brief but impactful events and characters).
Another method that can be used to identify a symbol is by paying attention to anomalies in the prose. This may sound abstract, but it is actually easy to apply. If the writer focuses on tight prose with minimal descriptions, then a sudden paragraph describing an otherwise unimportant object may have a deeper meaning to it. Conversely, if the writer’s style is very descriptive, but he or she glosses over an object or person in the crowd, then there may be more to it.
When symbols are employed, a natural push and pull takes place between the writer and reader. The writer has to make symbols identifiable—not too cryptic or too obvious. If it is abundantly clear what the writer means, then the symbol will lack challenge and be less impactful. If the symbol is too subtle, then the reader may not even notice it.
How to Use Symbols in Writing
The successful use of symbols starts with your novel’s main theme. What does your protagonist’s inner journey entail? Not the external plot developments, but the growth / change that takes place within the character. For instance, starting out as naïve but becoming knowledgeable; setting out with a dream before achieving that dream; revenge giving way to mercy. Once your main theme has been identified, you can start to construct the supporting symbols. So, ask yourself the following questions when brainstorming a symbol:
What is the main theme of my story?
What is an important aspect of my main theme that I want the reader to focus on?
Can this aspect be embodied by something concrete?
How can I implement this symbol in a recurring pattern?
Let’s say you are writing about a woman who overcomes poverty to become successful. The difficulty of her life journey has made her a no-nonsense type of individual. However, she learns about mercy and compromise as she grows older. So, the theme of the story is maturity and the attainment thereof.
What could be a symbol of maturity for this woman? Perhaps she has a locket with a picture of her grandmother. The locket is hidden away in an attic somewhere because the protagonist always equated her grandmother’s kindness to weakness.
We now have a working symbol that you can either actively seed in your novel somewhere, or keep on the backburner for later use as you write.
How can we implement this symbol in a recurring pattern? Perhaps the woman visits her childhood home every other year. Slowly, as she matures as a person, her opinion of the heirloom changes. It goes from being a symbol of failure to one that represents humble beginnings. Eventually, the protagonist, now grey and elderly herself, wears it with pride.
Obviously, the locket isn’t used as a cornerstone of the plot—the woman’s rise happens with or without it. However, the heirloom’s subtext adds depth to the protagonist’s story. It also invites the reader to think about the woman’s journey in greater detail. This increase in reader engagement is, of course, good for the story.
Don’t refrain from using symbols because you are afraid of how they will be perceived. Contrary to popular belief, they rarely come across as cliché.
Manuscript Mentoring helps yet-to-be authors with all aspects of their writing—including their use of symbols and other literary devices. If you are in need of a professional writing coach, then have a look at our Services page.