What are symbols?
Originally, the word is derived from the Greek »sýmbolon«, which translates as much as a distinguishing mark, feature or symbol. In Latin, the term »symbolism« follows and so a German term develops: »Symbol«.
Concretely perceptible, the symbol stands for an abstract, invisible fact. This can be read again and again, but does such a definition help? At least not me.
I get clarity through the website Wortwuchs. Here it says that a symbol 1.) is usually a concrete object that 2.) stands for an abstract thing and 3.) triggers an association with the recipient. Symbols are mainly created 4.) by repetitions, whereby they are usually 5.) do not refer to what is meant on their own, but 6.) very often have something to do with it, because they are a part of what is meant or closely related to it.
As an example, insert the scar of Harry Potter and go through the requirements step by step. This makes it possible to understand what symbols are in literature. But how do they arise in the first place? And what makes it easier for you to weave a symbol into the next book?
Symbols in history
Initially, a distinguishing feature was needed between parties, for example, dealers. This could be a pottery shard or a bone that the business partners broke in two to take one with them. When the people (or their deputies) met again, everyone showed their part. So the other knew that he was facing the right man.
Every day, the symbols were assigned a practical meaning. As a literary stylistic device, they emerged in poems, but also in other genres. The Minne literature of the Middle Ages, to give an example, understanding a red ivy leaf as a symbol of love. Already in the third millennium BC, stylized depictions of fig leaves had awakened the same association. And since ancient times, ivy embodied eternal love because it is long-lived. This sign has prevailed throughout Europe. And derived from this, today everyone knows the statement of red hearts.
In addition, there are symbols from literary epochs, first and foremost the blue flower. In the Lierer Romanticism, about 1795 to 1845, she expressed longing and love. Among other things, she also characterized wandering and wanderlust.
How do symbols work in literature?
The examples show that it is often images that are charged with meaning by people. Depending on the epoch, culture, or social current, they are occupied differently. Thumbs up mean “all right” in Europe. In the Middle East, people who are shown this hand gesture are likely to feel offended.
So if you’re considering using symbols in your book, it’s a good idea to interpose one more question: Are your readers familiar with the background?
In Christianity, the cross commemorates peace and redemption. But there is also the saying that someone has to carry his cross. This can revolve around a disease that needs to be managed. But other problems are just as possible.
In the Kreuz trilogy, bestselling author Petra Schier assigns special importance to the crucifix. Here is a piece of jewelry: necklace, pendant, and the frame in which it can be inserted. The relic is divided among three people. And it hums or glows to warn when adversity threatens.
Step by step, the author introduces her readers so that they can unravel what this cross, a symbol in literature, is all about. Maybe you also want to make a new shortcut. Provided that the readers of your books can conclusively understand what you want to express.
How to Bring Symbols into Your Novel
Of course, for symbols to unfold their power, you don’t have to develop a series like Tolkien or Petra Schier. It’s also easy: in characters or with the plot.
Symbols and figures
The scar of Harry Potter, a tattoo, how a character walks or speaks: all these points to her personal history. And this can be associated with strong feelings. At least attitudes and interests become clear. Why does someone opt for gothic, vintage, or hippie look? Maybe he wants to hide something? Overact? Question your characters in the novel and create symbols.
Symbols and Plot
In crime novels, the crimes are often staged. The perpetrator wants to send a message. Yes, of course, here the points »figure« and »plot« overlap. But the question remains: When in the course of the story does the character show this typical behavior?
In all genres, you can subliminally scatter hints. Is there anything that one of your characters does over and over again? And if so, why?
In addition to the »when«, the »where« is often also decisive. Locations that are interwoven with the plot can create an atmosphere or stand for something else. For example, if a character dreams of the Baltic Sea, again and again, there must be reasons for this.
Symbols in Literature – Revision
If you insist in your mindset that your book needs symbols, it could hinder creativity. In the writing process, you may cramp up. But taking symbols with you is only one option, and certainly not an obligation. Be aware of this.
What counts most is to write your story at all. And as soon as the draft is in the box, the revision begins. You read the text again. You may notice that you have already subconsciously incorporated symbols. Or it still arises how and where you could add one. Then just add it. Note, however, that your characters always tell the story and the plot is fascinating. Symbols are less important.
Why You Should Use Symbols in Your Novels
There is nothing wrong with using symbols. This will add more depth and meaning to your story. You make a stronger connection between your theme and the novel itself. In addition, the scope for interpretation expands.
If you develop your own symbolism and this shapes the course of your story, the books will become unmistakable for your readers. The symbols from literature, for example, can also be reflected on the cover.