What are symbols, and how can we use them to prolong longevity, add resonance and depth to our stories?
In his book, Man and his Symbols the renowned psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung wrote: ‘What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown, or hidden from us. A word or image stripped of its connotative aspect is a mere sign—it denotes or points to an object or event that has no added significance than its function—such as a chair, a table, and the like.”
The strength of symbols, especially symbols that emerge from the unconscious to manifest as Archetypes, is that they endure. To put it in another way, as primordial remnants bubble up from the human unconscious, they are expressed by the conscious mind as universally applicable archetypal symbols. They do so by cleaving to specific actions, events and objects in myths and stories.
“Symbols, when rendered adroitly, promote the longevity of any story.”
To generate symbols in your own tales, start with story and character: 1. Ask, what is the genre of your story? 2. What is the key idea, theme, and moral premise of your story? 3. What goals and struggles are your characters engaged in?
The answers to these questions will direct you to the sorts of symbols you need to use. A note of caution here. Your symbols shouldn’t attract attention to themselves—they shouldn’t be too obvious. They need to grow on us as vessels of meaning. They also need to be specific and to generate emotion. The key here is to work out how they relate to the characters and to each other: Are these symbols actual objects that would feature effortlessly in the characters’ everyday lives? Again, subtlety is key.
Here’s how Todd Phillip uses character symbols in his film, The Joker:
The film opens with Arthur Fleck applying his clown make-up. We don’t immediately ascribe symbolic significance to this. Arthur is merely preparing to do his job as a clown. But as the story progresses the clown imagery deepens in meaning, driven by story questions: Why is it that after Arthur loses his job, he continues to wear his clown make-up? Is it that it offers him an escape from his dreary reality? Does it have deeper psychological connotations—indicate his rejecting his identity due to some past trauma that makes him wish that he was someone else?
“Well crafted symbols are universal and eternal.”
The figure of the clown now comes to symbolise the breakdown of social structures in Gotham—the conflict between the rulers and the ruled. The mob dons clown dress and rises up against the authorities, with the Joker, as inspiration. A clown suit and mask are no longer symbols of fun and laughter—the Joker has become the symbol of something dark and dangerous—the symbol of chaos.
Symbolism can also emerge from setting, providing context, atmosphere and bolstering the theme. In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Mordor, as opposed to the idyllic life of the Shire, is shown to be a place of hellfire and horror—the entire landscape is symbolic of the evil represented by Sauron.
And of course, the rings themselves are highly symbolic, with the last ring being especially significant. Having been forged by Sauron on Mount Doom it represents pure evil. But the ring also symbolises desire and greed. We see this clearly in Bilbo and Gollum’s desire to posses it.
The ring also symbolises temptation. Even honourable characters such as Gandalf and Boromir are tempted by its beguiling power. This temptation gains in resonance by reminding us of the original temptation in the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the apple of good and evil.
When deploying symbols remember to show rather than tell, to point them towards your key ideas and themes, to select symbols that give rise to emotion, and to avoid being heavy-handed in their use.
Use symbols to add resonance, meaning and depth to your stories.