Symbolism & Setting—The Perfect Marriage
Today I have two very special guests. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are here to talk about a more advanced concept in fiction—symbol. Take it way, ladies!
We all want our writing to be layered. Like a gourmet meal, we want there to be more to them than just what is seen on the surface. In stories, this depth can be added a number of ways—through subplots, character arc, subtext, theme, and symbolism. Of them all, I think symbolism is one of the simplest methods to employ, and it packs a serious wallop.
Symbolism is important because it turns an ordinary object, place, color, person, etc. into something that goes beyond the literal. Babies represent innocence and unlimited potential, spring is synonymous with rebirth, shackles symbolize slavery, the color white brings to mind purity.
Symbols like these are universal in nature because they mean the same thing to many people. As such, universal symbols are helpful in representing what you’re trying to get across in your story; readers see them and understand what they literally and figuratively mean.
But a symbol can also be personal in nature, more individual, meaning something specifically to the character. For William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, the thistle represents love since one was given to him by Murron when they were children. To most people, love in the form of a prickly weed wouldn’t typically compute, but as it’s used throughout the film at poignant moments, the audience comes to recognize it for what it means.
So whether the symbol is universally obvious or one that’s specific to the protagonist, it can add a layer of depth to a character or story. But where do we find these symbols? How do we choose which object or thing should represent the important theme in a story? Well, it may not be the first answer that comes to mind, but…
The setting is actually the perfect place to find symbols—because they’re built into every location.
Sometimes, the setting itself can stand for something. Kristen touched on this in her excellent post last week, where she used Shutter Island as an example. The prison is a prison, yes, but it also represents the guilt that keeps US Marshall Teddy Daniels locked away inside his own mind.
Other setting symbols?
A home could stand for safety. A river might represent a forbidden boundary. A church could symbolize either hope or corruption, depending on the prevailing culture or the character’s experience. A city, a business, a natural landmark—whether you’ve chosen a rural or urban setting for your scene, the location can often represent an important idea that you want to reinforce for readers.
But more often than not, your symbol will be something within the setting that represents an important idea to your character. And when you look within your protagonist’s immediate world, you’re sure to find something that holds emotional value for him or her.
For instance, if your character was physically abused as a child, it might make sense for the father to be a symbol of that abuse since he was the one who perpetrated it. But the father might live in another town or thousands of miles away. The character may have little to no contact with him, which doesn’t leave many chances to symbolize.
Choosing something closer to home within the protagonist’s own setting will have greater impact and offer more opportunities for conflict and tension. A better symbol might be the smell of his father’s cologne—the same kind his roommate puts on when he’s prepping for a date, the scent of which soaks into the carpet and furniture and lingers for days.
Another choice might be an object from his setting that represents the one he was beaten with: wire hangers in the closet, a heavy dictionary on the library shelf, or the tennis racquet in his daughter’s room that she recently acquired and is using for lessons. These objects won’t be exact replicas of the ones from his past, but they’re close enough to trigger unease, bad memories, or even emotional trauma.
Symbols like these have potential because not only do they clearly remind the protagonist of a painful past event, they’re in his immediate environment, where he’s forced to encounter them frequently.
In the case of the tennis racquet, an extra layer of complexity is added because the object is connected to someone he dearly loves—someone he wants to keep completely separate from any thoughts of his abuse.
As you can see, whatever settings you choose for your story can be mined for emotionally charged symbols and motifs. Sometimes it can be tough to figure out which one to go with, though; the good news is that symbols can be added at any point in the writing process.
If you know beforehand what your theme will be, consider choosing settings that could reinforce that idea. If your theme emerges organically as you write, you can bolster it by adding motifs later with objects that naturally inhabit the locations you’ve chosen. Either way, if you need a little help coming up with symbols for your story, you can always check out the “Symbolism and Motifs Thesaurus” at One Stop for Writers, which explores a boatload of popular themes and possible symbols that can be used for them.
The setting is such a versatile tool that most of us frankly underuse. Make it pull its own weight by unearthing the symbols within it. And for more information on making your setting work harder for your story, see our latest books, The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces and The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Spaces.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
Thank you Angela and Becca! remember that comment love for guests counts double for my ongoing contest.
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
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