Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Symbolism in Novels

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by C. Patrick Schulze 
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The other day I had a sudden flashback to that long ago time in English Lit 101. I had this odd little professor whose only purpose in life was to force disinterested freshmen to analyze symbolism is novels and short stories. 
One day in class, the professor called on me to offer my interpretation of the symbolism in a short story. I saw it as an illustration of the lives of prostitutes. The professor almost laughed and asked how I had come up with that. After my explanation, he acknowledged my interpretation as valid, just wrong. The story, he said, was about politicians. How's that for irony? In any case, that inconsequential moment in my life got me thinking about symbolism in fiction.

Let's first define symbolism as it applies to literature. It is an object or creature that represents something else. Think the whale in "Moby Dick."

Symbolism is often employed to give greater depth or meaning to a work of fiction. In fact, symbolism  enhances the quality of literature in a way that cannot be duplicated by any other literary device.

Your symbols may be obvious, such as a national flag, or subtle, such as the flask a character carries in his hip pocket. For an example of an obvious symbol, consider the snake as the logo for the House of Slithering in the Harry Potter series. For a more understated symbol, look to the sled in "Citizen Kane" which represents lost innocence.

Should you attempt to instill symbolism into your novel? It's not necessary at all. However, you can if you wish. The most obvious novel of this nature is "The Da Vinci Code," which is all about symbols.

Should you wish to incorporate symbolism in your novel, pay close attention to how others describe their symbols. You'll most likely find enhanced descriptions and multiple incidents of use. You may find names of people, places and things that are less than ordinary. "Slithering" is a great example of that.

Here are some tips to get you started using symbolism in your fiction.

The secret to effective symbolism is to develop it before you write your story. It will appear much less contrived and make a more profound statement if you do. Symbols lose their power if they appear thrown-in or arbitrary.

Use symbols everyone will interpret in the same manner as you. Does an apple represent a doctor kept from your door as in "an apple a day…," or eternal sleep as it did with Snow White? If your reader misinterprets your symbol, you've created a big hole in your book.

With that said, ensure your symbols are not clichés.

One type of symbolism that has yet to lose its flavor is color. Red still means heat, anger or passion, whites represent innocence and so on.

Ensure your symbols represent what you want them to represent. A skull and death is a pretty sure bet but a shoe and manhood? Well, that's a bit too deep for most readers.

Have your symbols represent something of value to the character to whom the symbol is tied.

Use them with care. Don't have too many or you may slip into the category of allegory. A couple should do you just fine.

A good time to reintroduce your symbol is at the climax of your story. Let's say you've used the aforementioned flask to symbolize a character's inability to control his vices. Then, on the day he finally overcomes his weaknesses, he might drop and break the flask.

Consider using a symbol in a contrary fashion. Maybe the good guy really does wear black.

Now, would you care to share the symbols you've used in your novels?

Until we meet again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel "Born to be Brothers"


  1. I guess I haven't really used symbols in my writing.
    And the teacher shouldn't have said your interpretation was wrong. We all see things differently.

  2. C. Patrick SchulzeJune 16, 2010 at 4:54 PM

    I hadn't specifically planned any symbols in my current manuscript but two of them showed up without an invitation. I went ahead and worked them in and they worked out well.

    As to the professor, I don't much care. It was a loooong time ago and I survived the ordeal.

    Thanks for your comment, Alex.