Today’s post comes from my book 101 Creative Writing Exercises (aff link). This is from “Chapter 5: Fiction.” Let’s take a look at symbolism in fiction.
Symbols and Symbolism
In Alice and Wonderland, a white rabbit appears, and Alice follows him down the rabbit hole that leads to Wonderland. The white rabbit is a herald — a character archetype that signifies the first challenge or the call to adventure. This is the change in the main character’s life that marks the beginning of the story.
Symbolism in Fiction
The white rabbit became so widely known that it eventually evolved into a symbol. Because it’s white, it can symbolize purity. Because it’s a rabbit, it can symbolize fertility. But because it was the herald that called Alice to her adventure, the white rabbit is often used as a symbol to represent change. Sometimes, it’s simply used as a herald.
The white rabbit appeared in The Matrix, an episode of Star Trek, and in several episodes of Lost. In Jurassic Park, a character finds a file labeled “whiterabbit.obj” and in Stephen King’s The Long Walk, a character refers to himself as “the white rabbit type.”
The white rabbit can function as a traditional symbol or as a reference to Alice in Wonderland. Such is the case with the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.
Symbolism occurs whenever one thing represents something else. For example, a book could represent knowledge. A caged bird could represent oppression or imprisonment. In a story, the repetition of a symbol (every time the book or caged bird appears) can have significance to the story. Maybe every time a character fails because he doesn’t know enough, there’s a book in the scene. Or perhaps a person who is oppressed keeps a caged bird but doesn’t recognize the irony (that he is imprisoning a living creature while suffering his own oppression).
Develop a list of five to ten symbols. Invent your own symbols rather than using ones that commonly appear in fiction. If you’re working on a story or novel, make a list of symbols that you might use in your project. Symbols are often linked to big themes: love, revenge, sacrifice, redemption, narcissism, etc.
Tips: You might find it easier to choose a theme or issue and then look for a symbol that represents it. On the other hand, if you have an interesting image (a red scarf, a snow globe), you might find a way to turn it into a meaningful symbol.
Variations: Choose one symbol and write a list of ways it can be used throughout a story. For example, a white rabbit in a story could appear in a pet store. It could be somebody’s pet. It could be in a science lab. It could be part of a magic show. Make sure you don’t give the symbol more importance than the plot or characters. A symbol is present to add depth and give the story greater meaning. It’s an accent to the story, not the central focus of it.
Applications: Symbols enrich a piece of writing, adding layers to the themes and meaning of the piece.