Using Symbols in Your Novel: Tangled Webs of Significance and Meaning

Symbols can be tricky.

Do you keep it minimal–maybe using only one symbol? Do you use several? Do you use a number of symbols based on a significant number (like three or seven)? Do you use color to add to its meaning? Do you use a common object or something abstract?

Sometimes when I’m writing, I think of a symbol that would really add to the plot and to a character’s significance, but other times I think of a symbol before I’ve even written down a single character’s name.

Sometimes, we writers create symbols without truly realizing it.

Symbols exist in reality. We have trinkets from life that bear significance, people who represent traits that we admire, perceive meaning in natural events like thunderstorms. As such, literary symbols resonate with us because we have our own symbols in our lives. As writers, we’re definitely going to use symbols in our novels. Ask yourselves,

  1. What will my symbol be? What will it represent?
  2. How will my character(s) interact with the symbol in the story?
  3. Will any characters be in on the symbol’s meaning?

If you can think of any other great questions regarding symbols, post them in the comments section!

On a scale from one to Hawthorne, how many symbols are in your novel?

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is chock-full of symbolism with various objects and people carrying meaning. He even has five different versions of the primary symbol, the A, in addition to the other symbols that abound in the text. Should your novel go that in-depth? TSL is under 70,000 words, a decent novel length by today’s standards. Some argue that the amount of symbols in TSL is overboard.

But TSL is one novel. What about a series? It’s difficult to keep symbols a series to a minimum. If we look at the symbols in Harry Potter, several come to mind–but they’re manageable. Rowling did a great job keeping the symbols organized in the reader’s mind. Consider the organization of your symbols for your novel, be it a stand-alone or a part of a series. If you can’t manage your symbols, your reader probably can’t, either.

My answer: Go with your gut.

Do what feels right. Trust that nagging feeling about your plot, characters, and symbols.

Here’s a great online resource for incorporating symbols into your writing: “Symbolism: The Complete Guide.” I also recommend including  your symbols in your novel’s outline–when they’re introduced, what purpose they serve, and how the symbols resolve in the text (or lead the novel toward resolution).

How have symbols enhanced your novels? Share your experiences in the comments section!

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