In the Bible, the apple is a symbol for knowledge, immortality, temptation, the fall of man and sin. The book itself gave the apple a symbolic meaning. How can you as an author give an object like the apple your own meaning? And how do you make sure that your readers interpret the apple as having your own particular meaning instead of the "usual" biblical meaning?
I have to disagree with Mark's thesis that modern writers shouldn't waste their time trying to use symbols and develop their own. I think you can, and that it is worthwhile.
What is a symbol? Defining our target
A symbol is an associative representation, often of an abstract concept with a more tangible or concrete idea. Symbols generally have metaphors at their core and can be used metaphorically, often with the effect of creating multiple shades of meaning layered upon a passage of simpler text.
It is important to distinguish between symbolism in general and so-called "universal symbols", which I think were the focus of Mark's post. "Universal" symbols are like the apple (fruit, actually) in Genesis; they are widely recognized as symbols with specific associative meanings that have been established through years (millennia, even) of repeated intertextual reference. To those who know the symbol, just seeing an apple immediately brings to mind all of the symbolic baggage that has been tied to it through philosophical, religious, scholarly, critical, and popular analyses. A simple image in any new text or work of art becomes a shorthand for a wealth of complex ideas. But a full appreciation of this symbolism depends on familiarity with the original source of the symbol and with important interpretations and reinterpretations of the symbol. (This is why I've put "universal" in quotes, because it is inevitably of limited reach.) I think what Mark was getting at is that it is generally beyond the scope of a single author's work to create a universal symbol, because it relies on a widespread, meta cultural experience after publication, far outside of the author's ability to control and predict, and symbols are much more likely to be widely understood and internalized in societies where people are used to thinking symbolically.
So, don't worry about creating a symbol that becomes an instantly recognizable cultural touchstone. What you can do is create strong symbols within your work. Then the question is: if it's not to provide new symbolic vocabulary for the larger culture, why do it? Great symbols can have multiple shades of meaning that enrich your story beyond the words on the page, adding new dimensionality and food for thought for any reader who pauses to think about the symbol or scene, or the interactions between symbols. It is an opportunity to enhance a narrative with philosophical meaning, statements about truths of human nature or existence, or allegory for another message. If that requires creating your own symbols, go for it.
How to create a symbol
This depends heavily on how your mind works, of course, but if your goal is to craft novel symbols (new ones, that is, not symbols for long prose fiction), you could try the following:
- Think about what your story's important themes are that you would like to represent. Also consider whether you want your characters' traits or particular plot developments to be artistically significant, and if they could be represented by symbols.
- Write them all down; you can always thin it out later.
- Brainstorm physical objects, phenomena, places, relationships, events, routines that could be used, however crudely, to represent your themes. Draw analogies between them, and think about how they could be incorporated into your plot.
- Go back to the plot you have. Are there things or ideas in the story already that could be used, reinterpreted, or modified into symbols for your themes?
- If you're stuck, try reading some richly symbolic work for inspiration. Read mythology and fairy tales, especially annotated ones, to see how the symbols relate to the concepts they represent. Read analyses of The Lord of the Flies. Read parables and allegorical works. Read up on iconography in many different cultures. Go through art history or "art appreciation" textbooks for interpretations of visual symbols. Read annotated poetry and Shakespeare.
- Look at your list of potential symbols. Can any of these be given a new spin to represent something else in the story, another theme or character, or the flip side of the same theme? (What happens if your apple is a certain color? If there is a worm in it? If it's baked in a pie? If someone spills a whole barrel of apples? If it's used as a projectile weapon? If people go bobbing for apples? If an evil queen gives it to Snow White? If it withers on the tree?)
- Save your notes and refer to them as you write the plot, and as you go back through later to add in more layers of symbolism.
How to use symbols
Symbolism can be employed in many different ways, even within a single work. You can use similes and metaphors to call direct attention to it, or interweave symbols by having them show up more inconspicuously throughout (as a motif). Give the symbol more weight in the story as an object by dwelling on it more. (Describe apples more carefully and completely than you do elsewhere.) Hint at the meaning by embedding the symbol in thematically important scenes. Make it overt by making it significant to the plot.
This article, 5 important ways to use symbolism in your story, is a great place to start looking for specific ways to incorporate your symbol.
Using novel symbols means that you have to work assiduously to build symbolism into your work in an artful manner, allowing those themes and their symbols to be sufficiently developed by the moment when they should be most powerful in your story. You're growing your garden from seeds rather than planting already-blooming nursery flowers.
Even if you use your own symbols, don't forget about the power you can tap into by using "universal" symbols. Engage in intertextual dialogue and use new tools to enrich your story. (Apples are in the fruit bowl on the table during a conversation about privileged information, and the person without clearance to know things takes an apple from the bowl) -- and you can even play with these by subverting the obvious uses or meanings of the symbols (a proffered apple is refused, or the person who eats it loses his memory, or Eve was framed).
Symbolism can be as subtle or overt as you like. Obvious, hit-you-over-the-head symbols like you would find in The Scarlet Letter are pretty easy for your reader to identify, but some would scorn the lack of artistic sensitivity. Symbolism, like most things, is most satisfying for the reader when you have to work a little to get it. If it gets too subtle or obscure, most of your readers won't grasp the symbolic meaning at all and it will be lost (but you may find a few readers for whom it's a bigger payoff).
Controlling the interpretation of symbols
If you want to control the interpretation of a symbol, it needs the proper context. Identify a pattern or order of operations or something that is part of the "correct" interpretation and unlike the wrong one, and hint at it with the way you incorporate the symbol. You might think of those standardized test analogy questions (often written like "bread: butter :: ______ : roof", to be read as "bread is to butter as _____ is to roof": you can't choose an object that relates to roof with the proper association without first contemplating the relationship between bread and butter. Butter goes onto bread as a layer on top; a roof can go over a house or a building, and shingles are the top layer of a roof, but shingles would not be the correct answer because the word order would make shingles analogous to the bread). Make sure you have just enough context to let your reader draw the appropriate analogy between your symbol and its meaning.
For example, if you use a tornado as a symbol, it could be quite easy to have the reader interpret it as a symbol for emotional trauma through imagery, descriptive language about "whirling emotions", etc. But if you want a tornado to symbolize second chances, you'll have your work cut out for you; you will have to connect the dots more thoroughly for your reader by having the tornado disrupt a character's intended path to a point of no return, or show how the rebuilding allows for a new and better structure, and maybe bring the tornado imagery back into play or have your character reflect back on it and provide the correct interpretation ("you know, in hindsight, that tornado was the best thing that ever happened to me").
Remember that a symbol can represent more than one idea at once, which is usually great because it adds new dimensions to your scene and your imagery, but it also makes it difficult to completely dissociate a symbol from established "universal" meanings.
The short answer is that you can't. Symbolism is really a property of a culture, not an individual work. Symbols are a kind of second order language, and you can no more make up symbols out of whole cloth than you can make up language -- at least, not if you hope to be understood by a broad audience.
Secondly, the reason you hear so much about symbolism in literary studies is that works of art created any time before the modern age come from a civilization that was deeply symbolic in its way of thinking and expressing itself. To think, to write, to speak, and to paint symbolically was, therefore, no special trick, it was just the way you were used to communicating. The medieval world view held that God filled nature with symbols to communicate essential truths about Himself to man.
This is why, for instance, we had the theory of epicycles to try to explain anomalies in planetary motion. The heavens were held to be the realm of perfection (as opposed to the fallen realm or earth). The circle was a symbol of perfection because of its unity and simplicity. Thus in the heavens God proclaimed his perfection by inscribing circles in the sky. And when observation showed that the planets did not actually behave like they were prescribing circles, their motion was explained as circles orbiting circles, because circles are symbols of perfection and God fill nature with symbols of his glory. (I'm simplifying grotesquely here. Read C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image for all the wonderful details and a far more learned explanation than I can offer.)
And, of course, we don't think this way anymore. We now live in a painfully literalist civilization. This literalism had been good for science and technology but bad for the arts. It also causes us to grossly misinterpret the writing and beliefs of older and wiser civilizations, but that is a different topic.
Symbolism today, therefore, is a rather effete pursuit. All but the most obvious and heavy handed symbols will be lost on the general reading public. In fact, even the most obvious and heavy handed symbols will be lost on most of them because they have no experience of symbolic thinking or expression. It is not simply that they don't know the symbols, but that their linguistic centers are not attuned to interpreting symbolic communication.
Can you establish new symbols in a literary work? Maybe, sort of. You will have to do it by establishing an association between an object and a particular action or mood, through repetition, rather like training Pavlov's dog to salivate when you ring a bell. So every time our hero sees the woman he loves, he slips on a banana peel. Eventually, every time we see a banana peel, we think of the girlfriend. Except we probably don't, because our minds are not used to working that way.
Is it worth doing? For the average reader, probably not. But only you can decide who you are going to write for.
I can see why it feels hard. Almost all these symbolism tropes refer to a specific existing symbolism, rather than ways to create something new. So what are your options?
Apples have other symbolic meanings if you look to the right traditions, and if you know what you're doing you can create something new. One of my stories is called Golden Apples , even though apples per se are essentially irrelevant to the plot, because they are very much a symbol. The protagonist manages to get into a special school, where golden apples are free at lunch. This is in reference to the apple of discord in the myth of Troy: the students will be head-hunted when they're older, and they're only their because of previously competing over places in much the same way. (It's also a reference to the way genetics and environment interact in both apple colour and student attainment.)
She receives a necklace with an apple depicted on it; at first this seems like a simple gift praising her intellect (an apple is of course a Biblical symbol of knowledge) over her family's poverty (which also forces her to overcome certain struggles in the story), but then she discovers a secret in the clasp as nefarious as the Greek apple's intent. This gets her embroiled in darker events than she would have expected, which again calls back to the Biblical significance. So in a story about different ways gifted children are educated - a topic which seems to relate to neither Biblical nor Hellenic beliefs - I create a complex, layered symbolism through a combination of the title, references to multiple older works, plot events (including ironic variants on earlier ones), and in-universe attitudes.
Of course, readers are entitled to think my specific construct is stupid.
Another way I like to create symbolism is through ambiguous foreshadowing. Another of my stories is called Thrust . An early line gives the impression this is a reference to greatness, and possibly other things, being thrust upon certain people, because the protagonist is both talented and arrogant, and she uses her talents in selfish ways. But later in the story, the one-word title becomes apposite to multiple other events in her life, basically with respect to every meaning thrust has. I haven't finished writing it yet, but the ending I intend will call to one very specific meaning the rest of the story overlooks - and, also, to the first one considered.