Why You Shouldn't Worry Too Much About Putting Symbolism & Meanings Into Your Fiction

Symbolism is arbitrary and varies from culture to culture - and even within culture.

Let's take color symbolism, for example. Specifically, the color purple In the US and Europe, purple is often associated with royalty and magic - but in Brazil, it's associated with death and mourning. This page explores the various meanings of colors throughout different cultures - which variate wildly. The same goes for just about anything you can think of - animals, plants, whatever. There's no guarantee that your symbols will be clear to other people.

It doesn't actually add anything of significant value to your story.

I've seen people get themselves wrapped up in knots fussing over whether their story contains symbolism... all the while ignoring the aspects that actually matter - the plot and characters. While symbolism can be fun for people to tease out, they're not going to bother looking for it in the first place if the rest of your work doesn't hold up. Nobody is going to care if your characters' names have secret special meanings if they don't care about your characters in the first place.

Throwing in mythological, religious, or exocultural elements is too often treated as a shortcut to profundity.

Case in point: the Final Fantasy series, which throws in references from any religion or mythology the creators can get their mitts on. It seems deep and meaningful up until the point that you realize that none of it has any bearing on anything - you could remove all of the religious and mythological references in the stories, and the stories wouldn't be impacted or hindered in the slightest.

I've seen other would-be storytellers do essentially the same thing, under the mistaken belief that their stories will somehow be better or deeper for all of the names of Judeo-Christian angels and demons, Japanese deities, the realms of the Norse world tree, and Grorg-knows-what-else thrown in willy-nilly. Sadly, this is not the case. It merely makes them look like pretentious hacks, particularly to those who are familiar with the references dropped.

Even if you don't put symbolism in your story, people will find it after the fact.

Just take a look at the TVTropes page Everyone Is Jesus In Purgatory. Those who like (or hate) your work sufficiently will have no trouble at all finding all of the hidden symbolism you never put into your story. ;)

Internal symbolism is fine. Go wild with internal symbolism!

Things that are symbolic or indicative within the story itself (eg, the Deathly Hallows symbol in Harry Potter, the use of card, pool, and chess motifs in Homestuck, the number eight in Discworld) are fine, because that's worldbuilding, and worldbuilding is awesome. Don't worry about whether your symbols correspond to any traditionally-accepted symbols in the real world.

Allegory is fine, too!

Don't think for one minute that I'm saying you shouldn't try to make allegories to real-life issues in fiction, because if that's what you want to do, then you absolutely should. Speculative fiction has always had the power to speak on sensitive issues where other forms of expression have been silenced.

You might also like:

Human Psychology and its Effect on Myths, Legends, and Superstition

Back to General Storytelling & Other Things
Go to a random page!