What is the meaning of a rosebush?
Better yet, what is the meaning of one particular rosebush: the one that grows outside the jail in The Scarlet Letter? My dad likes to tell the story of the time he had to read that book in school. One of the first things he had to do related to it was write a short report on the meaning of that rosebush.
Now, my dad isn’t a subtle person. He prefers it straightforward (and is straightforward himself… it’s amusing sometimes how much people don’t understand his lack of passive aggressiveness). This rosebush gave him a hard time.
Because the rosebush is symbolic. It’s allegorical.
I dunno, your guess is as good as mine. I’ve read the book (and that opening with the rosebush half a dozen times) and still don’t have more than a guess.
Perhaps it’s ironic. Does it show how something beautiful can grow in a place of harsh judgement and punishment?
Or… what if it’s just a rosebush? Nathaniel Hawthorne isn’t around anymore to tell us, so the literature “experts” get to decide that this bush with thorns and flowers represents something.
Many writers use symbolism in their writing. “This sigil represents despair and darkness because it’s the villain’s sign.” Or “the sunrise represents hope” and “this rosebush represents purity and the jail represents the loss of it”.
We even use symbols to represent our characters (something I’ll talk about later when I prose blip about character masks and handles).
Some of us, however, don’t really get it. How do you create symbolism and – most importantly – how do you make sure your reader understands that symbolism?
One of the best ways to make a symbol is to keep it simple. Nobody wants to spend half their reading time trying to decipher your symbolic oak tree. In fact, if your symbol is too obscure or complicated, your readers will never understand.
There comes a point where I – as a reader – am not going to have the time or brain capacity to notice your symbol. Even critics and literature experts will have a “maximum” symbol intake. They will notice it the most, to be sure, but your average readers won’t.
Here’s why: we read quickly. Even the slowest reader turns the page after a minute or two. Those of us who read very fast will be turning that page every quarter minute or less.
You have thirty seconds to a minute to make us understand your symbol (unless you’re like Hawthorne and spend a whole chapter describing the symbol… please don’t).
Even recurring symbols have very little time available to them.
Therefore, keep it simple. Don’t let yourself be caught up in poetic and deep symbolism unless that is the style of your book. If everything in your story is poetic and deep, then that’s okay.
Chances are, however, that your story is not. Poetically deep stories – unfortunately, in many ways – aren’t what people read. You’ll notice The Scarlet Letter is not on very many people’s favorite book list. A miniscule number.
I’d suggest keeping your symbolism within the scale of Tolkien’s Ring of Power and J. K. Rowling’s Hedwig. “The Ring to Hedwig” scale, as it were.
The first is a very obvious symbol. So obvious, in fact, that we’re told right-out what it represents: it represents power and greed and filth and temptation and darkness and evil.
Perhaps the most important thing that makes this obvious symbol a symbol is this: it means something different to every person. Even when we’re told what it is by Gandalf, people can draw their own conclusion and observations.
And there’s Hedwig.
“Wait a minute, Aidan, Hedwig? Hedwig is a symbol?”
I think so, yes.
To me, Hedwig represents loyalty and friendship. Especially loyalty through the hardest of times. Hedwig stays with Harry even when she’s made to spend her summer in a cage because Harry’s uncle is a vile person. She doesn’t forsake Harry, even when he “betrays” her and uses other owls (yes, he uses other owls as messengers for good reasons, but it would still feel like betrayal to Hedwig).
This symbolism of hers, however, is rather subtle. Rowling never explicitly states it. She may not have even intended it, for that matter. But it’s what I draw from Hedwig as a character.
However, Hedwig is not a complicated symbol. I drew those ideas of her symbolism from one reading of the Harry Potter books. Actually, from one reading of the first book and second books.
When in doubt, keep it simple.
Your readers thank you.
Abstract and Concrete
One of the easiest ways to categorize symbols is to assign them “Abstract” or “Concrete”.
An Abstract symbol points to something outside itself. This can be one of the harder symbols to understand. Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia can be a difficult symbol to interpret, especially if you don’t come at him from the correct standpoint/worldview. Hedwig can also be a hard symbol to approach, because she’s what I’d call a personal symbol. She means something to ME, even if she doesn’t mean that to YOU.
On the other hand, Concrete symbols point to themselves or their physical surroundings. Tolkien’s Ring points to itself. It is the evil and power and temptation. If it had none of its own power (none of the soul of Sauron), then it would be a symbol at all.
Other Concrete symbols can point to something directly and physically related to them. In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives, the currency used by the peoples of his worlds is made up if little glass spheres with gems inside them. These gems are filled with Stormlight, which in turn generates the “magic” of this world.
These spheres are symbolic of money (actually, all money is symbolic of some form of worth). And, in turn, they are a physical symbol of power and strength and influence and the magic of this world.
Concrete symbols are always easier to understand. Very few people will miss a Concrete symbol. It’s often spoken of outright by the character, explained in the narrative or dialogue, and is very important to the plot of the novel.
Abstract symbols are likely to be missed. Your reader has to know what they’re looking for. They have to be expecting it. Abstract symbols – like the rosebush and Hedwig – are often personal. They mean different things to different people. Some of them have multiple layers, and can be so deep that no one will ever fully understand them except the author.
But that’s okay.
Choosing a Symbol
What is a symbol?
Anything you want.
That twig, this piece of lint I found in my pocket, the stack of graduation cards sitting on my desk, an oak tree in your backyard.
However, not all of these things are realistic symbols.
If you pick out your symbols willy-nilly, your reader will miss them. Every. Single. Time.
A symbol has to mean something by itself. First to the reader, then to the story, then to its meaning.
How does this work?
Simple: it has to mean something to the reader in one way or another. A random piece of lint means nothing. But graduation cards? Those mean something to people.
Next, the symbol has to mean something to the story. Is the story about a graduation, or a graduate?
If not, then the cards have no meaning to the story and are a worthless symbol. If so, then they can have deep and emotional meanings without very much work.
And finally, it has to mean something to its symbolic meaning. What are you trying to convey? If you’re trying to symbolize loneliness, a stack of cards from others wishing you well on your graduation won’t convey that at all. But if you’re attempting to symbolize happiness through social interaction, then you have a start.
Symbols can be powerful tools. Used right, with the right proportion and subtly to fit your story, they can bring deep themes and deep thoughts to your reader.
Used wrong, they mean… nothing.
Use them right, yeah?
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