Writing Reality: Symbolism and Motifs

07/10/2013 at 05:30 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Symbols are a fundamental aspect of life as well as literature, running parallel with the realism of events and narrative. They represent something else, are defined as “objects, characters, figures, or colours used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.” Standing alone in terms of what they represent, they act in lieu of wordy descriptions. Look around, and you’re bound to find a sign or object functioning as an informative snapshot of what a part of your environment means / does. Some symbols are employed to work in a universal sense, for a wider audience – whether stuck up in a cleaning cupboard or in a firefighter’s office, the symbols relative to COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health)
Hazard_Symbols

mean the same thing – they are an appeal to the senses of the viewer, with basic and comprehensible images used to help them avoid danger. This is particularly handy when crossing language-barriers.

It can’t be ignored that symbolism is as subjective a literary device as any other, especially where imagery is concerned. There are no cut and dried answers. What may represent one cultural / religious aspect to a number of people, can be interpreted very differently elsewhere. The colour red in Western cultures is generally accepted to represent intensity of feelings (Holly Golightly describes having the “mean reds” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and peril, or the inference of it (road signs giving orders. e.g. speed limits, are red circles, and mainly prohibitive.)

But in Japan, the colour red is significant of luck and prosperity, particularly when teamed with white. The national flag is made up of a red circle on a white background, and is known colloquially as “Hinomaru” (“the sun’s circle”); Japan (“Nihon”) is thereby known as the “Land of the Rising Sun”. The sun has positive connotations for its life-giving qualities, but subjectivity can break this symbol down further in terms of cultural beliefs, e.g. as a source of photosynthesis for crops to grow, or a heavenly deity, etc.

 photo c1299374-6509-4b68-9e3b-05875171c15c_zps80db74a2.jpg

In writing, symbols and motifs create an alternate message that runs in the background of your more direct approach – narrative, characterization, dialogue. Were you to stick predominantly with these aspects, a story could soon begin to resemble a screenplay or technical manual, full of information but little colour. The trick is to keep the audience semi-aware of what is going on, where imagery is involved – I can’t emphasize enough the need for understatement. The worst possible reaction from the audience would be to slam the book shut, cursing an enormous bear-trap of a symbol they saw ahead on the path – one gleaming through the leaves, barely covered and shining with teeth to pierce their suspension of disbelief. It’s a surefire way to piss off a collective.

Ideally, a symbol doesn’t choke up the narrative; it drops into the subconscious-flowerbed and sews its idea in the minds of the audience, waiting for realization to grow by degrees, or not at all. You yourself may not explicitly know where the plot is going yet, what the characters have to say or what they mean to one another – there’s little point working in the weave of symbolism when the construct isn’t yet safe. More often than not, their observations will crystallize the nuances of symbolism without you even realizing. What one character “reads into” as a sign, another may not; the same holds true for the audience, where it’s the completion of an image via 50/50 perspective – what you, the creator, intended and what the reader (through experience and personal beliefs) chooses to see and relates back to the narrative and characters.

Often, a charged event will be marked symbolically. In the Dragonlance series, the three Gods of magic are represented by colours: White (Good), Red (Neutral) and Black (Evil). Mages studying and practicing the arts of a God, must adhere solely to that colour in terms of the robes they wear, marking their allegiance. A symbolic event for a mage is the changing colour of their robes:

“‘Our bargain remains. What? You ask for more?’ Raistlin was silent for a moment, then he sighed. ‘Name it!’
For long moments, the mage listened, absorbing. Caramon, watching him with loving anxiety, saw his brother’s thin metallic-tinged face grow deathly pale. Raistlin closed his eyes, swallowing as though drinking his bitter herbal brew. Finally he bowed his head.
‘I accept’
Caramon cried out in horror as he saw Raistlin’s robes, the red robes that marked his neutrality in the world, begin to deepen to crimson, then darken to a blood red, and then darken more – to black.” – pg 110, Dragons of Winter Night, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman.
Note the relative connotations too – “crimson” and “blood”, denoting danger/violence, deepening further to the black of night/death.

Look to your own reality for inspiration. What do you see everyday which, when placed in a changing-circumstance context (an “off” day, a moment of true clarity after walking out of a job, the death of a loved one or birth of a child) turns the mundane and ordinary into something blindingly meaningful, and somehow relative to your life?

In my novel End of the Line, I make a point of citing several instances in which petrol rainbows go slick-sliding down rainy gutters, or where the colours turquoise and brass appear (flying ribbons, an autumn sunset.) These tend to occur with references to a missing girl, Siobhan, who is the pivot on which the novel spins. Her personality is described not so much in the words of those who knew her, but by the symbolism speckled throughout the narrative – she was “beautifully intoxicating” like the smell and texture of petrol, slippery with the danger and effervescence of its colours. She preyed on the minds of men and boys while in town, eluding them all (for their own good, too.)

Similarly, I reworked the myth of the blue rose to become symbolic of another character – a girl-woman, a wanderer between worlds, whose pleasant and intelligent nature is at once appealing and frustratingly mysterious. She is impossible to pin down to any one time or place. The blue rose tattoo at her shoulder is symbolic of an elusive nature; it’s also the burden/blessing she carries. As the rose genus cannot naturally produce the Delphinidin pigment necessary for this hue, it’s reliant on synthetic production and yet has maintained its status as a near-universal symbol of the unattainable, the mysterious.

When referencing their growth, I put a further slant on this pathos by having them bloom almost exclusively on the graves of those bound in a love-bond with people left behind. The rose itself feeds the bond while carrying the message of eternity. By virtue of this, the rose won’t die whether at growth or cut and carried (the character referenced has a blue rose crushed and mixed into her tattoo’s ink, thereby marking her as one “cursed by life” until death reunites her soul with the fallen.) This becomes further subjective to the personality of the carrier – some may wander for years, uneasy in crowds but forever lonely and unable to give/receive love again; others languish and die among the blue rose garden-graves. Whatever the outcome, their choice – and it’s always a willing love-bond – sets them apart for the rest of their days alive, ensuring that the blue rose is not a gift lightly given.

Telling your audience that a man is a fraud is one thing; showing him to be so via colour symbolism, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatbsy”, can make the difference between a fairly decent narrative and a real palette of a story, full of subtext. There’s the green light on Daisy Buchanan’s dock; the continuous presence of yellow, as a veneer of gold. Yellow can represent many things – madness, gaiety, sickness, friendship. When placed in the context of Gatsby’s circumstances – particularly at the first party – it screams of little substance, and frivolity.

“‘You don’t know who we are,’ said one of the girls in yellow, ‘but we met you here about a month ago.’
‘You’ve dyed your hair since then,’ remarked Jordan, and I started but the girls had moved casually on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket. With Jordan’s slender golden arm resting in mine…” – pg 51, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Notice the use of “gold” for the quiet dignity of Jordan, as opposed to the starkness of “yellow” that exposes the girls as crude by comparison.
“‘Let’s get out,’ whispered Jordan, after a somehow wasteful and inappropriate half hour. ‘This is much too polite for me.'”

Gatsby’s recurrence of colour-coded symbolism, is a motif. While a particular symbol relates to one concept (e.g. despair shown in falling autumn leaves) a motif is a repetitive element running concurrent with narrative. In music, a motif is a passage repeated in melody and/or rhythm, to instill a certain theme in the audience consciousness. In Watership Down, Richard Adams builds up the flight from Efrafa through careful selection of symbols, to create a tension-motif with a resounding conclusion:

(Narrative) “Bigwig’s first impulse was to fight Woundwort on the spot. He realized immediately that this would be futile and would only bring the whole place around his ears. There was nothing to do but obey…”
(Symbolism) “Despite the sunset, the evening seemed heavy with cloud and among the trees it was sultry and grey. The thunder was building up.”

(Symbolism) “As they set off up the left bank, the wind began to blow in fitful, warm gusts, with a multifoliate rustling through the sedges. They had just reached the plank bridge when there came a rumble of thunder. In the intense, strange light, the plants and leaves seemed magnified…
(Narrative) ‘I think this is going to be a rough business,’ he added quietly to Hazel. ‘I don’t like it much.'”

(Narrative) ‘”Frith sees you!’ cried Bigwig. ‘You’re not fit to be called a rabbit! May Frith blast you and your foul Owsla full of bullies!’
(Symbolism) At that instant a dazzling claw of lightning streaked down the length of the sky… Immediately upon it came the thunder; a high, tearing noise, as though some huge thing were being ripped to pieces close above, which deepened and turned to enormous blows of dissolution. Then the rain fell like a waterfall.” – Watership Down, Richard Adams.

Look for concepts/themes relative to the world you’ve created; how the narrative framed within it observes and reacts. Notice how with the rabbits, the use of nature as a recurrent motif ties in with their constant prey-instinct awareness of surroundings, always alert to its signals and dangers. Their relation to symbolism pivots on contextual awareness:
“It did not occur to Hazel that there was anything unusual in this. The idea of a bridge was beyond him. He saw only a line of stout posts-and-rails on either side of the road…Hazel saw without surprise the road crossing the river. What worried him was that where it did so, there were only very narrow verges of short grass, offering no cover. His rabbits would be exposed to view and unable to bolt, except along the road.” – pg 301, Watership Down, Richard Adams

The bridge doesn’t represent a symbol of safe passage; it’s overall mass is incomprehensible in a rabbit mind. Rather, it’s dialed down to what can be understood, a lack of cover – symbolic of exposure, danger, the prey-instinct of flight kicking in.

For further commentary on symbolism in writing, read the responses 16-year-old Bruce McAllister received when he mailed a four-letter survey on the use of symbolism, to 150 accredited authors. My personal favourite has always been from Joseph Heller, Question Two
(“Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”
This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. Resources for literary terms and devices | Cite Something! said,

    […] *Rachael Spellman has a useful blog post about symbolism and motifs.   […]

  2. Evil Music Industry: Symbolism | The Great Tribulation is Coming said,

    […] Writing Reality: Symbolism and Motifs (celenagaia.wordpress.com) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

ultimatemindsettoday

A great WordPress.com site

Attila Ovari

Loving Life and Inspiring Others

Nina Jobe

Tracking Corruption Around the World

The Greek Analyst

NEWS AND ANALYSIS ON THE GREEK POLITICAL ECONOMY

The Daily Post

The Art and Craft of Blogging

The World of Moose

Moose's art and stuff.

Yanis Varoufakis

THOUGHTS FOR THE POST-2008 WORLD

Foreign Policy

the Global Magazine of News and Ideas

%d bloggers like this: