The Skill List Project: Symbolism Preliminaries

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I said we’d look at skills related to symbolism, another of those topics that some people disdain as too artsy-fartsy: “I just want to read a good story, dammit, I don’t want anything literary or pretentious.”

But you can’t avoid symbolism, either in fiction or in real life. The only question is Humpty Dumpty’s: “Which is to be the master?” Do authors control their symbols and use them effectively, or do symbols run roughshod over whatever the authors are trying to accomplish?

What Counts as Symbolism?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a symbol is “something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation); esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition.” In everyday life, symbols are intended to be easy to see and understand. For example, when a bottle has a skull-and-crossbones on the label, the symbol is there to proclaim, “POISON!” Similarly, when Toyota or Apple or Gucci put their corporate logo on something, they want people to see the symbol and know what it means. They aren’t trying to be subtle (although they may try be tasteful).

Symbols in fiction typically have to be different. They have to suggest and evoke rather than declare. If they’re too blatant, they interfere with the story’s believability: the reader notices that the author is playing games. That’s not the kiss of death—if, for example, a story is told in first person, the right kind of narrator can make game-playing enjoyable. But often, symbolism hurts the story unless it’s low-key.

Why Do We Need Symbolism?

You might ask, “Why do we need symbolism at all?” Why not just tell a “straight story”? My first answer is that the human brain sees symbols everywhere—it’s unavoidable. If an outdoors scene takes place in rain or sun, at night or day, when it’s hot or cold, every meteorological possibility has symbolic overtones…a distinct emotional flavor. Whatever details you describe will have a psychological effect.

Rain isn’t just water falling out of the sky, it’s rain: a complex set of associations that we’ve acquired from the evolution of our species, the zeitgeist of our culture, and our own personal memories. Rain means something to us. Some rains symbolize growth; some rains symbolize sorrow or melancholy; some rains symbolize harsh indifference. In many stories, the symbolic clout of rain is small—just a passing nuance. But in other stories, rain is huge. How many books actually have “rain” in the title?

The same principle applies to other aspects of setting. A scene in a small cramped room has a different symbolic feel than a similar scene played out in an airport lounge, or an art museum, or the middle of an ice rink. Every setting has symbolic weight. As a writer, you can either recognize that fact and use it, or you can be oblivious and run the risk of sabotaging your story with a clash between foreground and background. (Of course, you can make foreground and background clash deliberately, but then you really have to pay attention to what you’re doing.)

Settings aren’t the only things with symbolic weight. People also act as symbols, whether you want them to or not. This is one reason why you have to be careful with how you depict your characters: readers are quick to interpret each character as representing your view of all people of that “type”, whatever “type” may end up meaning. If only one major character in your story is a person of color, and that person happens to be the villain, what do you expect readers to think? If you only have one Asian character, and that character is a hoary old mystic master, you’re in a similar boat. Readers will assume your characters are symbolic of your cultural views, and no amount of after-the-fact rationalization will change that.

Fiction writers don’t get to say, “That’s not what I meant.” If most of your writing experience is on the Web, your writing is often part of larger conversations, where there’s a back-and-forth process that can clarify any statements which might be misconstrued. But a story must stand in isolation—no context, no backsies, no nothing except what’s in the story itself. That’s why you have to be cognizant of what readers may read into the story. If there’s a potential for misunderstandings, the story itself has to deal with the problem because stories don’t have “outsides”.

Ignoring the symbolic overtones of people, places and things is amateur stuff. Professionals recognize the power of symbols (intended or unintended), and they ride herd on the effects in order to make their stories work.

(That said, you can never anticipate everything a reader might read into your words. Every writer has horror stories in which readers come up with crazy ideas about what a piece of fiction says. Do you still have to take responsibility for such misreadings? In some future post, we’ll have to look at skills related to dealing with professional dilemmas.)

Light and Dark

Enough preamble: what does symbolism actually look like on the page, and how do you use it effectively? Let’s go back to where many of us were introduced to symbolism: the use of light and darkness in Romeo & Juliet.

“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”
“What light through yonder window breaks?”
“More light and light it grows…more dark and dark our woes.”

Modern readers are so accustomed to “Light = goodness and beauty” and “Dark = corruption and danger” that we don’t think about them as examples of symbolism. They’re just the way people talk. “You’re in a dark mood.” “I have a bright idea.”

But using “light” and “dark” in this way is pure symbolism. We might call it “kindergarten symbolism” since it’s so cheap and easy (not to mention overused). In fact, we laugh at stories where the “good guys” always wear white and the “bad guys” always wear black. Still, light and dark symbolism can’t be ignored. I don’t know whether its power is purely cultural, or if there’s an innate biological component too—our ancient ancestors likely had more to fear in the darkness than in broad daylight—but whatever the reason, light/dark differences will have an emotional effect on your readers. It’s inescapable. So you have to recognize the effect and take it into account as you write…probably not making a big thing of it (unless you’re going for melodrama) but definitely not ignoring how the reader is apt to respond.

Oh, So Much More

Light and dark differences are an example of imagery. There’s so much to say about imagery that I’d better leave it till next time. Meanwhile, I suspect many readers have their own initial thoughts on the role of symbolism in fiction…so let’s hear them!

P.S. For the thoughts of other writers on symbolism, have a look at this.

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There are 4 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    Of course the ideal form of symbolism is when the editor writes back that he really likes the symoblism of X and you get to smile as if you had actually planned it.

  2. 2. Jessica

    I play with the light and dark idea a bit in my latest story. The rooms and offices belonging to one group are white, clean and bright. The other group have a dark and dingy warehouse and tend to wear a lot of black.

    It started by accident but once I noticed I kept returning to it because a large point of the story is about not automatically believing what you’re told. The use of colour is “telling” the readers that one group are the good guys and the other the bad guys – they have to decide whether they believe it just like the main character does.

  3. 3. Rocky

    I think what sets sf/f/horror off from other genres is the common use of personification, and the relative absence of metaphor and simile. Metaphor and simile would tend to be too confusing to use in a narrative in which magic or technology or horrifying creatures are used as the explicit personification of emotional and philosophical aspects of the human condition.

  4. 4. Mary

    I think the real problem with metaphor in fantastic literature is that, even in mundane literature, you have to avoid metaphors that could be taken literally. And, of course, in fantastic literature, a metaphor that can’t be taken literally is a pipe dream.

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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