Exploring Symbolism in Fiction Writing

What is Symbolism? In storytelling, symbols are a tool that can go beyond language and connect with readers on a deep level. Think about the white whale in Moby Dick. The whale represents obsession, revenge, nature’s power and indifference. When you think about it, symbols are pretty amazing. 

In this blog post, we are going to talk about symbolism and how it can make your stories more meaningful.

Symbolism is a tool writers use to represent bigger ideas. With symbols, you can say something without actually saying it. These symbols can make you feel things, dig deeper into ideas, or give stories more depth.

Symbols can take various forms, such as

♦ a physical object (like a rose, boat, or a key)

♦ an animal (like a monkey, elephant or snake)

♦ a colour (like red, green, or black)

♦ an abstract concept (like love, loss, or freedom)

The symbolic meaning of a symbol goes beyond its literal representation and is often open to interpretation. Consider the scarlet letter “A” in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, a powerful symbol representing both sin and redemption.

Why is Symbolism Important?

Symbolism is important because it can make a story more profound, thought-provoking, and memorable. Symbols can make a story unforgettable because they can deepen themes, create atmosphere, reveal character traits, and evoke emotions.

But, keep in mind that symbolism can mean different things to different people. Readers can interpret symbols differently depending on personal perspective and cultural background. 

Types of Symbolism?

Here are a few common types of symbolism:

Universal or Archetypal Symbolism

These symbols have universal meanings that are widely recognized and understood across cultures. Examples include the sun representing life and vitality, or a snake symbolizing temptation or evil. Universal symbols tap into shared human experiences and collective unconsciousness.

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald is all about money, love, and the American Dream. You’ll notice some familiar symbols, such as…
♦ The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock represents hope, unattainable dreams, and the elusive nature of desires.
♦ The Valley of Ashes symbolizes the moral decay and the dark side of the American Dream.

Everyone can relate to these symbols, that represent our deepest desires and disappointments.

Cultural or Contextual Symbolism

These symbols derive their meaning from specific cultural contexts, historical events, or societal references. They may have different interpretations depending on the use of culture or time period. Take a white lotus flower, it could symbolize purity and enlightenment in the East, but a red rose could mean love and passion in the West.

Set in a dystopian future, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood explores themes of power, oppression, and feminism. Atwood throws in different symbols that reflect the story’s context.
♦ The red handmaid’s dress symbolizes losing oneself
♦ The Eyes symbolize the surveillance and control imposed by the totalitarian regime
♦ The Wall represents the oppressive power of the regime and serves as a warning to those who dare to resist

These symbols criticize social standards and power structures.

Character Symbolism

This symbolism type uses characters to symbolize certain ideas, qualities, or archetypes. If you had a character named Grace, it might mean they’re all about forgiveness and making things right. But if you had a character named Pandora, they could be extremely curious.

The “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding presents the idea of the darkness of human nature and its potential for savagery.
♦ The character of Simon represents purity, spirituality, and inherent goodness.
♦ His interactions with the other boys on the island reflect the struggle between civilization and savagery.
♦ Simon’s fate and his encounters with the “beast” highlight the fragility of morality in the face of primal instincts.
Simon illustrates how a character can be a symbol.

Object Symbolism

We can give objects in a story symbolic meanings. These things might be important for reasons other than their practical use or looks. Like a broken mirror could mean you’re feeling bad about yourself, and a locked door might show that you have either obstacles or chances.

In the epic fantasy trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien, the One Ring serves as a central object of symbolism.
♦ It represents power, corruption, and the allure of evil
♦ the characters’ desire to possess or destroy the ring reflects their internal struggles and the moral choices they face.
♦ The ring messes with the characters and proves that too much power can be really harmful.

This book shows how objects can symbolize meanings, themes, and characters.

Color Symbolism

Colours can express emotions and signify things. Colours are often associated with symbolism. Like, red can mean passion or danger, blue can be for chill vibes or sadness, and yellow can give you happy or hopeful feelings. Colors can help create a specific mood or bring out the themes and characters in a story.

The novel “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker uses colour symbolism to explore themes of empowerment, identity, and spirituality.

♦ The colour purple represents a range of meanings, including strength, resilience, and transformation.
♦ Purple reflects Celie’s journey of self-empowerment.

Colours add layers to the story and give readers a chance to interpret the text symbolically.

Animal Symbolism

Writers often use animals as symbols. Specific animals may symbolize things. For instance, a lion can symbolize strength and leadership, a dove can represent peace and purity, and a snake can signify deceit or temptation. Animal symbolism can add depth to characters, emphasize themes, or reflect aspects of human nature.

In “Animal Farm,” George Orwell uses animals to symbolize political power. 
♦ the pigs, led by Napoleon, represent the ruling elite and embody the corrupting influence of power.
♦ The horse, Boxer, symbolizes the working class and their loyalty and exploitation.
The novel critiques power structures through animal symbolism.

Note that symbols can overlap or have multiple interpretations. Think about adding symbolism to your stories.

Exploring the Elements of Symbolism

When we talk about the elements of symbolism, we mean the different parts that make up the symbols in a book. These elements make the story more powerful. These are the important parts of symbolism:


It’s all about the symbol in symbolism.. which should be obvious. It can be an object, person, action, or image that carries a symbolic meaning beyond its literal representation. Symbols often represent abstract concepts, themes, or emotions.


Context is key in understanding symbols. The symbol is only meaningful, with an understanding of the events, characters, setting, and culture. Symbols get their meaning from the bigger story.


Everyone has their own interpretation of symbols. People might see things differently based on what they’ve been through, where they’re from, or how they understand symbols in the literature. Interpretation is open to many meanings.

Theme and Motif

Symbols play a big role in the themes and motifs of a literary work. Themes are like big ideas that run throughout the story, while motifs are things that keep popping up and help develop those themes. Symbols help reinforce the story’s themes and motifs. For instance, the recurring motif of water in Toni Morrison’s Beloved represents rebirth and the healing power of forgiveness.


Symbols can be like a sneak peek at what’s coming. They could drop hints or build excitement, getting you ready for what’s coming up. Using symbols to foreshadow can make the story more interesting and keep readers hooked.

Emotional Resonance

One of the key purposes of symbolism is to evoke emotions in the readers. Symbols can create a powerful emotional impact by connecting to universal human experiences. By triggering memories, or tapping into deep-seated emotions. Symbols create an emotional connection with the readers. Have you noticed that clock in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? It’s making everything feel strange and urgent, adding to the playful mood of the story.

Contrast or Irony

You can use symbols to show that things aren’t always what they seem. Contrasting symbols can emphasize conflicts or juxtapose opposing ideas. While ironic symbols may subvert expectations or challenge conventional interpretations. These elements of contrast and irony add complexity and nuance to the symbolic representation.

If you think about these things, when you can add symbolism to your writing, it makes it really powerful and meaningful for readers.

Examples of Exploring Symbolism

So now that we know the types, problems and elements, let’s look at how popular authors use symbolism:

The Joy Luck Club

In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan uses symbols to help us understand the characters, themes, and cultural experiences. Here are a few examples of symbolism in the book:
♦ The Mah-Jongg Tiles represent tradition and heritage
♦ The feathers represent hope and reconciliation
♦ The moon represents femininity, intuition, and the cyclical nature of life.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

Audrey Niffenegger uses symbolism to enhance The Time Traveler’s Wife in the following ways:
♦ Clocks and time represent the passage of time and the inevitability of change
♦ Books and libraries stand for knowledge, personal stories, and a way to understand and connect with others.
♦ Clare’s art and illustrations are all about capturing moments of happiness.
♦ The meadow is a haven from all the time-travel

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz uses symbols to show different themes and meanings in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”. Examples include:
♦ The curse, known as “fukú,” represents the weight of historical and ancestral trauma.
♦ The golden mongoose is a symbol of protection and resilience.
♦ Comic books and science fiction serve as symbols of escape, imagination, and alternate realities.

The God of Small Things

Roy uses symbolism in “The God of Small Things” to make the story more powerful, emotional, and meaningful. Check out these examples in the book:
♦ The Meenachal River represents the passage of time, the fluidity of life, and the mingling of joy and sorrow.
♦ The History House represents the hidden stories and suppressed truths that shape the lives of the characters.
♦ The “Love Laws” become a symbol of the oppressive social structures that restrict personal freedom and happiness.

The Book Thief

In “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, symbols are used to add depth to the story, stir up feelings, and explore profound themes. Here are a few examples:
♦ The accordion symbolizes hope, comfort, and the ability to find beauty amidst darkness.
♦ The Grave Digger’s Handbook represents Liesel’s defiance against oppression.
♦ Colors play a symbolic role throughout the book. White represents innocence and purity, while red symbolizes both love and violence.

10 Tips to Exploring Symbolism

There are lots of ways you can use symbolism for your fictional novels. My advice…

1. Plan in advance: Outline with symbolism in mind.
2. Employ contrast: Use contrasting symbols to highlight conflicts, juxtapose ideas, or emphasize character growth.
3. Utilize color symbolism: Use colors to set the mood, theme, or develop a character.
4. Understand the theme: Clearly define the central themes of your story and identify symbols that align with those themes.
5. Experiment with unconventional symbols: Don’t limit yourself to conventional symbols; explore unique or unexpected objects, actions, or characters as symbols.

6. Revise and refine: Continually review your use of symbols in the editing process, ensuring they align with the overall story.
7. Consider cultural and historical contexts: Find some symbols from culture or history to give your narrative more depth.
8. Consider the reader’s journey: Make sure your symbols enhance the reader’s emotional experience and engagement with the story.
9. Embrace ambiguity: Make sure your symbols have meaning, but don’t be afraid to let readers interpret them in their own way. It’ll make things more interesting!
10 Read widely: Look into how other authors use symbols to make their point. Analyze their choices and reflect on how they contribute to the overall narrative.

Last Words on Exploring Symbolism

Symbolism helps you create stories with lasting impact. Symbols can really amp up the themes, characters, and emotions in our stories and make them unforgettable. Go wild with your imagination, play with symbols, and take readers to a world where meaning runs deeper.

Take Care



Feature image by Monika from Pixabay.



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