Symbols: How to use symbolism to bolster your theme

If you want to make me shudder mention symbolism and theme.  The pair together could easily end my love of literature.

The problem is that I am such a literal person.  I believe some people would use the term rational.  Put a vase in your story and I see a vase.  It is useful for holding flowers, maybe weighting down the corner of a map or schematic that has been rolled up.  You can also occasionally use it to clunk a bad guy in the noggin.

I am probably not going to grasp it as a symbol for the theme of motherhood or anything else.  It just isn’t how I think.

Because of this, I dread the thought of adding symbols to my own stories.  How can I add these subtle layers if it isn’t how I think?

I needed to broaden how I think about symbols.  I realized that as I read a post on DIY MFA.  In this post, the author talks about being careful about the symbols that you choose.  If you choose a symbol with an obvious meaning, you can’t choose a meaning for it in the context of your story that contradicts its cultural meaning.

The author warned writers about this because there are symbols around us all the time — the letters that you are reading are symbols.  One way signs are symbols.  Then there are peace signs, the Christian fish, the Celtic cross, and so much more.  Once I discover the themes in my story, I can start with these symbols.   For example, let’s say that the theme peace?  I could use a peace sign, a dove, or a lamb.

You can also pull something from within the story that has special meaning for the character.  Perhaps it is a necklace that she got from her mother, a woman who worked for peace.  Or it is something from the family garden where she used to sit and meditate.

Whatever symbols you choose to use, they will have to appear multiple times, growing in importance throughout the story.  Think of the Mocking Jay.  At first it is a pin.  Then it is duplicated in a subversive dress pattern.  Then it becomes a symbol for an entire movement, often used to tag buildings  in acts of defiance.

I’m not done drafting my story but as I work I’ll be looking for the symbols that will snag my readers’ attention and draw them into my theme and my story.