Making Symbolism Work

When I was a sophomore in high school, I tried out for the Junior/Senior drill team. When I got home after try outs, I discovered I’d left my brand-new Reebok cross trainers at the school. My mom drove me back to look for them, but they weren’t there.

My self-centered teenage mind quickly decided that the shoes had been stolen as a cruel prank. Probably planned by a girl who didn’t like me. By the time we arrived home, I was in tears. More than just my shoes had been stolen. Those stark white, size 9 Reeboks represented my place in the world. Their theft represented my disenfranchisement. My loneliness. My teenage angst.

Handling their theft was a test of my strength, my resilience. I don’t remember the shoes I took my first steps in or the shoes I wore when I got married, but I can picture those Reeboks in my mind as if they were sitting right in front of me.

In the story of my life, those shoes are a powerful symbol. They represent a crucial step in my development as a woman.

Symbols are powerful in fiction as well as in life. In Gone with the Wind, Tara represents Scarlet’s independence, her strength, and her social position. As devestitated as she is when Rhet walks out her door, the reader has no doubt that Scarlet will be just fine. She may have lost love, but she still has Tara.

In Linda Howard’s MacKenzie’s Mountain, the long, trecherous drive up the mountain represents the boundary between Wolf MacKenzie and the people of the town. Everytime Mary drives up that road, she’s proving to Wolf and to the town that she’s willing to cross that boundary.

In Julie Ortolon’s Drive Me Wild, Brent Michaels’ sports car represents his success. For him, it’s the symbol that he’s finally made it, that he’s no longer that poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. At the end of the book, when he’s rushing to Laura’s wedding (so he can stop it, naturally) his Porche breaks down. Despite all that car means to him, he leaves it behind and finishes the journey in a broken down Ford Pinto. We know that Laura means more to him than the trappings of his success.

You may have noticed that in each of those examples, the symbol has meaning for the reader and for the characters. Symbolism doesn’t work—or at least, doesn’t work well—if the characters don’t get it also.

Naturally, symbolism can be handled like an inside joke between the author and reader. Look at Morely cigerettes in the X Files. On the show, every character who smokes Morely cigarettes is one of the bad guys. It works well on the show. A mere puff of smoke, the striking of a match, or a glimsp of that distinctive red and white package is enough to send shivers down the spine of an X Files fan.

But in the X Files, these symbols hold meaning only for the viewer. The characters never conect smoking with evil. They’re unaware that there’s any connection at all.

Morely cigarettes are a kind of code, shared between series creator Chris Carter and the audience. They are his way of nudging us in the side and winking at us. “Here, this guy’s bad. Watch out for him,” they seem to say.

But what works on the X Files, won’t work in your romance novel. Those nudge, nudge, wink, wink symbols will only remind your reader that you are there. You’re goal is to creat a relationship between your reader and your characters. Not between your reader and you.

Citizen Kane is arguably one of the best movies ever made. The shattered snow globe and the muttered word, “Rosebud” are powerful symbols of lost innocence. They tie the story together, they make it work, they draw from the viewer sympathy for a very unsympathetic character. The symbolism makes that movie.

It just so happens that Citizen Kane is also a scathing critism of media giant Willam Randolf Hearst. That’s not what makes the movie great. Most of today’s audience has never even heard of Hearst, or if we have it’s only in reference to the movie.

As it turns out, Rosebud was Heart’s nickname for a particular portion of his mistress’s body. Using the word Rosebud in the movie was Orson Wells’s way of thumbing his nose at Hearst. One final insult to the man Wells couldn’t stand.

Yes, yes, you’re very clever, Mr. Wells.

But ultimately, knowing the story behind Citizen Kane gives as much insight into Orson Wells’s arrongance and egomania as it does into Hearst’s.

Personally, I liked it better when Rosebud was just a kid’s sled, just a symbol of lost innocence. The story works better that way.

And just in case you’re wondering, I did find those Reeboks, the very next day. They’d been turned in to Lost and Found. Looking back on the incident now, they no longer represent my teenage disenfranchisement. Now they represent the emotional volitility of those teen years.

As a middle school teacher, whenever I got annoyed by my students’ mood swings, I’d think of those shoes and remember how emotionally vulnerable teenagers are. My changing view of those shoes represents my personal growth—the transformation of my character from fragile teen to strong, independent adult.

They are exactly the kind of symbol you can and should use in your story telling. Just don’t pull an Orson Well’s. Don’t let your own need to be clever and self-referential overpower your story. Symbols which have meaning for your characters are the only symbols you need.

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