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I was learning more about other types of characters a few weeks ago. I already knew most of the ones mentioned, dynamic characters, static characters, round characters, stock characters, I was just enjoying the explanations of these.

The one I've never heard of or rarely heard of and see in fiction is symbolic characters. The explanation of symbolic characters given to me from the video I watched was:

A symbolic character is a character that represents or embodies a concept or theme more so than themselves

That description alone is already interesting enough, but I don't think I've seen many of these characters in media. Possibly because of how subjective they are. Granted I don't think this will be the last time I ask this or even ask the other of the character types.

How do you write a symbolic character? I do not see symbolic characters that represent a certain concept or theme, and some of these might not be visible because of it's not that well executed. I'd like to know how would I write a character that represents a certain concept and or theme.

Can I write a symbolic character as a dynamic character as well? Can I write a character that represents a certain concept and develop in the story? That's what dynamic characters are. What are the roles symbolic characters usually have in the story? I'd also love to see some examples of these characters.

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How do you write a symbolic character? Not many do I see symbolic characters that represent a certain concept or theme, and some of these might not be visible because of how it's not that well executed. I'd like to know how would I write character that represents a certain concept and or theme.

It depends what you need the character to symbolize.

Victim characters are sometimes exaggerated to emphasize their innocence (sacrificial lamb). Antagonists are often given multiple negative traits (kick the dog). 'Bad authority' figures often have obvious flaws that represent corruption (cheating, stealing, covering up other bad behavior) or out-dated thinking (racism, sexism, un-scientific beliefs).

Anytime these traits are exaggerated in ways that don't really pertain to this plot, but leave us with a strong impression of what 'type' they represent, that becomes a kind of symbolic characterization. Also characters who fall back into their habits and original status quo, failing to change, are often symbolic of a thought pattern or moral rigidity that is more symbolic than character.

(Not the same as using a stock character or an archetype – which are 'shorthand' ways of setting up a type the reader will recognize.)

These 'bigger-than-life' traits may come with physical symbols: the innocent lamb has a painfully sweet stuffed toy that shows up as their co-representative. The vile authority figure suffers a series of embarrassing physical impairments showing their flaws on the outside too. Once that link is established the symbol might be transferred onto the object – the stuffed toy becoming the symbol for the child's innocence (even after the child has passed or grown), or the physical ailments of a mean person clearing up as the character 'heals' internally. (At some point that just becomes regular symbolism that is associated with a regular character.)

Not to split hairs, but when all the characters are symbolic the story is probably allegorical. The plot and characters will serve as symbols for another, well-known story. In the film Mother (2017), every character and action is a stand-in for stories from Christian mythology, so they are loaded with visual symbols to telegraph what/who they represent.

can I write a symbolic character as a dynamic character as well? can I write a character that represents a certain concept and develop in the story? As that's what Dynamic characters are. And what are the roles of symbolic characters usually have in the story?

A symbolic character's arc serves what they represent, as opposed to the self-serving actions of personally-motivated character agency. As a result, these characters usually don't change, they just fatally play out their role.

There use to be a trope 'JC character' (for Jesus Christ) who is designed to rally others through their in-story death, these characters are typically 'better' than any normal character to make their sacrifice unambiguously selfless. Many authors gave these characters the initials J.C., or other symbolic 'Jesus cues' to make that association clearer. Setting up a hypothetical J.C character (for instance) who refuses to sacrifice – not sure what that is suppose to say?

Symbolic character with agency?

ehhh, I don't think that's the goal, but you can write whatever you like.

The result however is that you are sending a mixed message that breaks the symbol for the reader. Themes and sub-text are concepts that need to be built in the reader's mind. Contradicting your own subtext usually just results in a trainwreck theme that doesn't hold to its own promise. Plots can have twists since they move point-by-point in chronological time. Themes don't 'twist' since they are an accumulation of everything in the story, they just end up feeling contradictory or aimless.

It's possible to subvert a symbolic character, or surround them with false symbols that later are untrue (as seen through another character's POV for instance). This might be more of an unreliable narrator situation than a misdirected symbol.

I wouldn't say 'never', but I can't think of how a symbolic character would break away from what they represent and do their own thing, unless that is the agenda of the author/story to say they ought to, or just to subvert the trope (innocent lamb fights back).

It'd be breaking the symbol, but you might overload on symbols before unleashing the real character (innocent lamb is actually tyrannical brat, or tough guy is actually a sentimental romantic).

Symbolism = Objectification

In every instance I can think of where a character becomes a symbol, any agency to make a decision falls on a protagonist who is not that symbol, either to be more like or un-like the symbolic person.

In the noir film Double Indemnity, the protagonist is on a moral fence, could fall either way, and the symbolic character represents the 'bad' path that is tempting him. The symbolic character is a kind of roll-model to be emulated or rejected. The conflict is whether he will follow this path or not. Inevitably the roll model meets their fate, whatever fate is appropriate to illustrate that path (usually something bad).

Symbols are ultimately 'objects' – if they aren't real solid things in the scene, they are probably a metaphor or some other narrative device. Therefore some 'objectification' seems inevitable to make the character work as a symbol. That feels like the opposite of character agency to me.

My guess is that you have in mind a protagonist who also is symbolic. I don't see how they could have full agency and still serve the symbolic purpose, but of course it's up to the author how subtle any symbolic implication should be.

Most people would consider Superman to be a symbol of 'goodness', and breaking that symbol would be breaking the character. My personal opinion is this makes Superman an un-interesting protagonist, but he works great as this immutable 'object' that is all-powerful but constrained by his moral code – it forces other characters to get creative to get Superman to do something out of character.

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    Your answer makes me think of the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. The purest book I can think of for this is Animal Farm. Is there a character in that book that isn't symbolic?
    – DWKraus
    Sep 16, 2022 at 20:10

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