OK, so we’ve always touched on symbolism in previous posts and nothing screams high-level writing better than by weaving in a subtle bit. A lot of authors do skip out on symbolism and being fair it’s difficult to write, but if you want your book to be an insightful masterpiece they use in English classes in 50 years time, a little bit goes a long way.
Symbolism can be subtle or pronounced. Some authors will never reveal their sneaky hints, waiting for readers to find Easter Eggs. If your readers never find your symbolism then maybe it’s too subtle, but if every reader can find it the moment you introduce it, it’s way too obvious. Personally, I like symbolism to be a reward when I’m reading, subtle details throughout that only make sense when you finish the whole story.
As usual, what you choose to include can also depend on genre. Symbolism in an action novel may not be necessary or will just be limited to some accessible cultural ideas. However, in novels that debate abstract things, think society and philosophy, a little clarification may come in symbolism. With complex content, symbolism is great for creating a clear warm up to the big point.
Overall symbolism comes in two parts: things and people. Is there an object in a character’s life that reflects them, or is it something important to them? Does the weather change with their mood? Maybe you want to foreshadow how their character develops by describing them in a particular way or subtly changing how they act. For example, if a character was destined to join an army later in the plot, subtle things like ‘marched’ instead of ‘walked’ could begin to steer the reader in just the right direction.
But what about people? Sometimes a whole character might be symbolic. This may add religious value to an otherwise secular story, as many authors have added the God/Jesus based character. Other stories may include characters that separate into representations of different traits. Brains, Bravery and Empathy could all be present in a team of characters that, when separated from each other, face some huge problems.
As I said, symbolism can be difficult, so how can we know when to include it? When I write, I tend to find things along the way; perhaps I chose a specific word or setting on a whim that really suits the particular mood of a character in that situation. For me, this stops scenes becoming clunky with forced symbolism but I do have to limit myself. To keep the power of your symbolism, stick to just a few big ideas. In the drafting process, I have to decide whether to pursue ideas that I’ve accidentally slipped in.
If this happens to you, make a note of it! Naturally, writing something that could become symbolic can easily be forgotten if you’ve not planned ahead. To plan ahead better, it’s important to really know your characters. Choose something basic: night, day, the four elements, whatever you like, and assign one of those ideas to your main characters. Try and shift your language to hint at that idea and keep it at the forefront of your mind when your character has decisions to be made.
Once you’ve decided on the symbolism you seek to add, the last thing to do is write it and sit impatiently in your chair, waiting for readers to find it.