So…symbolism. We’re pretty familiar with this storytelling element, and I’m guessing most of us have experimented with the use of symbols in our writing. In a nutshell, you take an object, word, color, phrase, etc., and apply it in a story to give it a deeper meaning:
Tolkien’s one ring (evil) in Lord of the Rings
The floating feather (destiny/fate) in Forrest Gump
A Mockingjay (rebellion) in The Hunger Games
Some symbols are super obvious; other times, readers have more of a subconscious awareness that the object is really meant to represent X. Either way, when a symbol is deliberately included in a creative work, it’s almost always saying something about the story’s theme.
But theme … this one isn’t as easy to grasp. So let’s talk about this storytelling element and how you can use it along with symbolism to strengthen your writing.
What Is Theme?
The theme of a story is the central message that explores a universal concept. Nature, good vs. evil, freedom—ideas like these are common to the human experience, and when we include them in our writing, readers tend to engage with them and connect with the text and the characters on a deeper level.
But thematic ideas themselves aren’t typically so neutral. The author will often bring their own worldview and perspective to bear on a given concept to form a thematic statement that supports a specific perspective:
We’re all part of the circle of life. (The Lion King)
Every human has equal capacity for good and evil. (Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
Freedom requires sacrifice. (Braveheart)
Typically, this statement emerges and is proven out through the protagonist’s journey. They may start out embracing the thematic statement, which is challenged along the way by other ideas, but it survives the test of time and holds true. (Or the protagonist refuses to embrace that statement, ensuring in most cases that the story ends in tragedy.)
Alternatively, the hero may come to the story with a contrasting statement that is eventually proven wrong. And in some cases, the protagonist has no particular dog in the thematic fight; they arrive on page one without an opinion either way about the main idea. But by the final pages, the people they’ve encountered and trials they’ve faced have made them believers in the thematic statement.
As authors, we’re orchestrating this process. Sometimes it happens subconsciously, with our deeply rooted opinions organically making their way onto the pages as we write. But others take a more strategic approach to theme; they know what idea they’re trying to get across. It’s just a matter of figuring out the best way to do it.
Well, good news! We’ve got some tried-and-true methods for you to do just that.
Use the Whole Cast Via…
Contrasting Thematic Statements. If you’ve done your character creation homework, you’ve assembled a cast that is diverse in experience, personality, and mindset. As a result, each player will see the thematic idea from their own perspective. Allow readers to explore the central idea through the lens of those different viewpoints.
For instance, greed is the concept being explored in the movie Wall Street, and the players involved all see it a little differently. Protagonist Bud is a clean slate, with no preconceived ideas about it. His mentor lives by the mantra “Greed is Good,” and he has the money and moral ambiguity to prove it. Bud’s father, a hardworking blue-collar family man, believes that strength of character and being able to look yourself in the eye are more important than being rich. Bud’s girlfriend doesn’t reference greed overtly, but her ability to be bought says volumes. These viewpoints all leave an impression on Bud, formulating his ideas and influencing his journey to finally understanding and embracing his truth about the theme of greed.
Surround your protagonist with characters whose thematic statements contrast with his own. As the story unfolds and conflicts arise, the characters will respond based on their preconceived ideas about the theme. This will allow you to convey the idea you’re wanting to get across.
Personality Traits. We’re largely defined by our values, and this comes through in the traits that define us. The same is true for our characters. Someone who is honorable will look at greed differently than someone who is materialistic, selfish, or even ambitious. Likewise for an idealist vs. a cynic. Personality will naturally impact your character’s opinions and values, so whatever theme you want to explore, give each character the negative and/or positive traits that will make their beliefs about it make sense.
Experiences. A character’s ideals will also be influenced by their experiences. Let’s take, for example, a theme of family. Someone who grew up in a tight-knit, got-your-back family may swear by the adage that blood is thicker than water. But a character who was abandoned by their parents and has had to cobble together their own support system may believe that family is what you make it. Being raised in a home defined by rigid rules, strict punishments, and condemnation could cause someone to feel that family is a prison that must be escaped. Each character’s history—the good and the bad—will contribute to their personal ideas about your story theme. Set them up to have their own ideas about the theme by giving them the backstories that will support those beliefs.
PRO TIP: Your characters’ traits, experiences, and personal biases will influence how they approach the story theme, so it’s important for you to know these driving factors in your cast members.
For this reason, we’ve structured the entries of One Stop for Writer’s Theme and Symbolism Thesaurus so you can explore these aspects for your characters and make smart decisions about their thematic statements. We’ve added 30 new entries to this collection and are in the process of updating the existing entries to include this helpful information, but you can see an example here.
Use Symbols to Reinforce Thematic Statements and Ideas
Once you know the thematic statement you’d like to convey, an effective way to reinforce that idea is with some strategically chosen and placed symbols. Theme is abstract, but symbols turn it into something solid and concrete that readers can easily grasp. When it comes to finding the right symbols to reinforce your idea, keep the following options in mind.
Universal Symbols. While nothing is truly universal, certain objects are widely associated with certain themes, making them easier for readers to interpret. After all, they instinctively know that snakes symbolize evil, spring represents new beginnings, and a crown indicates royalty, so a universal symbol will make those references very clear.
However, because they’re used so often to stand for the same things, these objects can become a bit clichéd. If you’re worried about that and would like to go a more original direction, use something that’s unique to the character, instead.
Personal Symbols. These can be quite powerful because they relate directly to the character and their individual story. These objects can also contain inherent emotion because of the character’s connection to them.
Consider a woman who is defined by two things: she’s a competitive runner who has often been the victim of discrimination. A second-place marathon ribbon is in a prominent place in her study. It’s quite a prize, but to her, it doesn’t represent achievement or talent: it’s the moment success was stolen from her when she was sabotaged by another runner out of pure prejudice, a constant reminder of how important it is to keep fighting injustice and never giving up.
This unorthodox object as a symbol of injustice, discrimination, or possibly vengeance is original and makes perfect sense for this character. The strong emotional connection also stirs up a lot of emotion, which is always a good idea.
Symbols Within Symbols. If you’re looking for a fresh symbol, explore big devices for the gold nugget that may be hiding within. Weddings, for example, often represent a new beginning. But maybe the ceremony itself has been a little overdone in this context. To find something original that conveys the same meaning, go deeper into the wedding itself. The marriage certificate, a cake topper, the bride’s veil—even something as innocuous as the dried rose petals that were scattered by the flower girl on the big day can be used.
The little people, places, events, and objects associated with a bigger symbol can represent the same thing. Explore these micro options to come up with some unique symbolism choices to sprinkle throughout your story.
Symbols are potent, affecting how we feel about the chosen items. Themes are even more so because they get us thinking by challenging our ideas and deepest beliefs. Used together, your story’s theme and the symbols you use to reinforce it can create a deeper, more meaningful experience for readers.
For a list of themes and the symbols representing each, visit our Theme and Symbolism Thesaurus Database at One Stop for Writers.
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.