The Power of Symbols
I decided to take a break from my incessant harping on why you should be writing (don’t worry, I’ll be back at it tomorrow). Thought you might like a post on an aspect of craft for a wee change, and so today’s topic is symbolism.
I know, it sounds tres literary and very deep and important and therefore boring but if you use symbols correctly they are actually anything but. I was reminded of this via one of my students, Kwasi, who wrote a pretty brilliant essay on the use of color symbolism in Richard Wright’s Native Son. He pointed out that Wright repeatedly and pointedly uses the word black with a negative connotation, white with a pure and good connotation, and he even gets in the color red–using it to describe the communist party which was common, if controversial, in that day.
It has been years since I read Native Son, so I was fascinated with the discussion of how Wright brought such depth and meaning to these three colors. And it reminded me of how powerful symbols can be.
What, exactly, is a symbol? Here’s the dictionary definition: "something used for or regarded as something else; a material object representing something, often something immaterial; emblem, token, or sign."
The key words in that definition are "material object." Read: every day object. Something common in your character’s life. In my novel, Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior, one symbolic object is a pen. Well, she is a writer, so that is a no-brainer. But the pen has special significance because it represents success to her: she has made enough money from her books that she can afford to order a special fountain pen by the dozen. Not only that, but the pen figures in the way that she meets the man she is destined to fall in love with, Riley.
I’m not in any way comparing myself to Richard Wright here, but ponder how he took the color of his protaganist’s skin, black, and made it into a symbol of menace (and it is Wright’s brilliance that he makes this a societal symbol. The color black symbolizes all that white society sees as a menace and a threat.)
Color is an excellent way to use symbol and it can be used in cheerier ways than Wright’s. Ellen Gilchrist used the color yellow as a way to carry through a thread in one of her linked-story collections (I’m not remembering the name of it at the moment, but just go ahead and read anything of hers, she is amazing.)
So, every day objects and colors and the material objects that we surround ourselves with are the starting points of symbolism in the novel, short-story, or screenplay. Symbols are often thought of as lofty and arcane, but you can avoid this fate with your work if you base your symbols in the day to day life of your characters. By making those objects carry thematic weight, you’ll bring home what you want to say to your readers in a simple and elegant way.