What is Symbolism (and How to Use it In Your Writing)

According to many experts, symbolism can be one of the most powerful ways to bring depth and meaning to your writing. Frankly, I’m not so sure and will tell you why. But this is a popular topic among writers and deserves our attention.

Full disclosure, I never think about symbolism while writing, and I contend even that many of the novelists who have been credited with being extremely symbolic didn’t do it on purpose either. Many household-name writers laugh at the symbolism they’ve been credited with.

So, what is symbolism, and can you use it in your writing? It’s simply the use of an object, person, or place to represent a larger idea.

The Purpose of Symbolism in Fiction

Obvious Symbolism runs the risk of readers feeling you’re shoving some lesson down their throats.

True Symbolism should tap into universal truth without being obvious.

6 Types of Symbolism

1. Color

Color can represent a character’s emotions but runs the risk of becoming clichéd.

Many consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby a classic in the use of color symbolism.

Fitzgerald is credited with using a recurring flashing green light to symbolize his protagonist’s greed, desire, and materialism, and the novelist has been praised for bluntly pointing out the symbolism.

2. Animals

Many contend that the use of animals as symbols can be seen in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy.

Throughout Harry Potter, the stag and the doe recur, perhaps to represent Harry’s love of his parents and his sadness at having lost them.

In The Old Man and the Sea, the marlin the old man catches may symbolize all the ancient fisherman’s hopes and dreams.

In The Hunger Games trilogy, the mockingjay may symbolize Katniss Everdeen and her friends’ spirit of rebellion in the face of tyranny.

3. Objects

Shakespeare aficionados claim Hamlet’s famous “Alas, poor Yorick!” speech uses a skull symbolically. They say it represents not only the inevitability of death, but also the futility of life.

4. Religious elements

The use of spiritual symbols to represent some larger spiritual idea can come off heavy-handed, though, when done right, it can bring deeper truth to a story.

C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series uses the lion Aslan as a Christ-like figure.

5. Romantic components

This type of symbolism can include objects, but also locations, animals, and colors.

Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18, begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

6. Self-Reflection

This works best subtly. When the parallels between a character and a symbol are apparent, the effect is often comedic.

In the opening of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry sees a snake in a cage at a zoo, where a sign reads, “This specimen was bred in the zoo.”

Harry empathizes with the snake, so perhaps the animal symbolizes Harry’s own captivity.

How to Use Symbolism in Writing

Don’t overdo it.

Symbolism can easily be overdone. Too much can become overbearing and preachy.

Keep it simple and give your readers credit. George Orwell deftly compares an infamous dictator with a pig in Animal Farm.

Avoid clichés.

Roses representing romance, birds symbolizing freedom, and blue representing sadness have been done to death.

Be subtle.

I confess I wasn’t thinking of symbolism while writing my novel The Last Operative. I was actually concentrating on not using any form of attribution (not even he said or she said). My goal was to use only action beats to make it obvious who was speaking.

I was gratified when no one noticed, not even my editor.

But, as I say, beyond the plot and the characters, I had no intention of shoehorning in some literary device like symbolism. But in retrospect it appears I did just that. I had to laugh when a critic pointed it out, but I can’t deny that—intentionally or not—it certainly fits the definition of symbolism.

My main character—Jordan Kettering—is flying home from a clandestine espionage assignment where he’s witnessed the horrific slaying of his own wife. He’s accompanied by a senior officer of the National Security Agency, a downhome good ol’ boy named Felix Granger.

The Granger character is beloved by everyone, including Jordan, but—spoiler alert—he turns out to be a villain. The following scene foreshadows that revelation, so if I was thinking of anything literarily manipulative, it was that: mere foreshadowing. My goal was to remain subtle about this. You decide if I was successful.

The scene goes like this:

…Jordan lowered his head to his chest and lowered his eyes, pretending to sleep. He felt like a schoolboy, his eyes still open, surveying as much as his limited vision would allow.

In the seat across the aisle from him, a woman removed her shoes and dragged a travel bag closer so she could rest her feet on it. A flight attendant walked by. There was grime on the plastic twist-lock holding Jordan’s tray table. He didn’t want to think; he just wanted to look.

If his mind had been empty, save for thoughts of his wife, he'd have shut his eyes again. If he could sleep without dreaming… Could he peek at his watch without Felix noticing? Why did he care? Anything, anything to occupy his mind. Could he push Cydya [his first love] from his thoughts at least until after Rosemary’s funeral?

You will soon face your children, and already you’re planning what to think about after your wife’s funeral!

Through the sliver between his fingers, he saw Felix wave at a fly. The man’s legs were crossed, a bony knee pressing against the back of the seat in front of him.

Anything for a distraction. Jordan continued to spy on Felix, letting the irony of that play on his tortured mind. He pressed his fingers harder to his forehead, as if he could somehow slow the thoughts, the emotions. Guilt. Vengeance. Rabid curiosity. Dread. Fear. Remorse. Love. And a memory he couldn’t face until it beat down his every last defense.

Felix fumbled for a button in the armrest and Jordan heard the loud tone. An attendant arrived.

“Could I get a coffee with one packet of sugar, honey?”

Felix flexed his thumb and middle finger in a way that reminded Jordan of how he shot marbles as a child. When his coffee came, Felix lowered the tray table from the seat between the two men and ignored the coffee. He tore open the sugar packet, licked his finger, and dipped it into the granules. He rubbed the sticky stuff between his fingers and thumb and wiped it on his left knee. He rested the heel of his hand near it and resumed the cocked, marble-shooting pose. Within seconds, the fly landed on the sugar. Jordan’s eyes widened.

Amazingly, Felix didn’t immediately flick at the fly. Jordan decided that he must have some knowledge of when a sugar-sucking fly was most vulnerable.

Perhaps when rubbing those appendages against each other like a wino near a trash-can fire.

Felix finally pulled the trigger and the fly caromed off the seat ahead of him. The fly landed in Felxi’s lap. It staggered in circles before Felix closed a loose fist around it. With his other hand, he snagged the fly by one wing under his fingernail.

He removed the right wing with a quick motion. Then the left. The fly crawled quickly around his hand. He transferred the insect to his left palm and got his right hand ready to shoot again.

When the fly stopped, Felix flicked it against the seat once more, caught it between his thumb and finger, and crushed it.

Casually Felix deposited the creature in his napkin, guzzled the coffee without a breath, and dropped the napkin into the cup. He turned off his light and folded his hands in his lap, head on his chest.

The trick had been impressive, but Felix had clearly not done it for effect. It simply wasn’t something one did for the benefit of the bereaved.

Another View of Symbolism in Writing

Author Ron Goodman, Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University, says that the fact that English teachers love symbolism can be a problem.

In his excellent blog from 2011, he posits that English teachers fixate on symbols. Why? “Not just because symbols are important—but because symbols are so teachable, and so testable.”

He maintains that “Symbols allow for a one-to-one correspondence between object and meaning. They allow for a set of answers to be written on whiteboards, penciled in on flashcards, memorized, repeated on tests...

“They allow students to be marked right or wrong. That’s why Cliff’s Notes and Spark Notes regularly come with handy indexed guides to symbols and their meanings—because those meanings are such a predictable feature of English tests.”

Goodman admits that “Of course writers use objects to stand for ideas, the physical for the insubstantial. Often, they’re quite explicit about it… And that prompts the question: why bother with the object at all?...

“Literature, in large measure,” he writes, “is the art of turning abstractions into flesh. The best writers can fix our attention on both symbol and meaning, both physical and abstract, at the same time...

"But the answer-key method of symbol interpretation breaks this link. It treats a symbol as an object to be decoded and discarded. In this view, the object is barely real at all: it is only a signpost pointing the way to the ‘real’ meaning, which is to say the abstract meaning.”

A thorough reading of Goodman’s post will reveal that he’s all for effective symbolism in writing. “Symbols … have always had the power to move the attentive reader, to be as clear as the artist needs them to be, without being decoded.”

If you want to get started on your next work of fiction, check out my tips on how to write a novel.