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)

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.

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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.

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Writing Reality – Fleshing out Characters

07/07/2013 at 20:33 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When writing the people who will populate my current novel, End of the Line, I work with various techniques to give them physical, emotional and symbolic qualities that help the reader achieve a vicarious experience. It’s not enough for the teen protagonist, Joe Blackthorne, to lever himself up off the page. I want him to stand (then slouch, being a tall lad and very conscious of it); to breathe, to look around … perhaps to nervously ruffle his hair. He needs to become flesh and bone, thought and idea, dream and memory. The essentials that will progress him beyond a written character, to a human being.

After all, the true achievement in writing comes from being able to unsettle that audience status quo, that what they have picked up is just a book. They need to care, to continue.

These are some of the tricks of my trade.

Get spatial

I don’t know about you, but I tend to struggle with linearity when it comes to plotting narrative flow. Bullet points and timelines always seem to end up sagging under their own weight. Relevant information drops off into a forgotten mess, leaving the less important stuff behind – my mind is cluttered with odd-sock ideas. These are great in and of themselves, but require space of their own, just as key narrative events need theirs.
So I take the lot off the line, and hang them up in the clouds.

With End of the Line, I’ve filled two A3 cartridge paper pads, and have plenty more to spare. Pencils, eraser, sharpener and good old exam highlighter pens (remember how much fun you had, colour-coding notes? Get back into that mindset) are the necessary tools to fill in the pages that will become an atlas of my novel’s world.

Each page becomes a cell; the name of each character, the nucleus, and it’s from here that ideas begin to grow. More often than not, details of the story will change with each monkey-thought session, jumping from page to page, often causing overlap. That’s fine – they’re just going through narrative-osmosis. This is where the highlighters come in handy, to mark out interactions between characters and their relevant scenes. I also date each fresh notation, as it’s a work in progress – with each page stuck up on the wall behind my bureau, I have constant visual reminders of character traits, as well as an endless source of inspiration, with progression tracked.

If there’s no way of pinning name-clouds on your own walls, keep their pad beside your main writing station. Use it as a memo pad; populate it with stickers, photos, newspaper clippings nail-torn out. My personal favourites are hair salon snippets, with the most creative makeup/styles going straight into the “teen gang” inspiration bank.

Do make sure the original owner of whatever you’re tearing into, is actually done with the piece first.

The information that appears in these name-clouds may not be all-inclusive to the novel, but they are noteworthy facts nonetheless. Whatever scene I am writing a character into, I need to know where he/she is coming from – their reactions, who they may or may not turn to for help or comfort; what they’re likely to say. To write such things as truth from respective POV’s, and not my interpretation of events, I need to know a character’s context.

For example, Joe has come from a decent middle-class background. His father worked in the City; his mother quit her job to dote upon her only child. The latter is emphasized by the lack of the former’s presence in Joe’s early life. Theirs was a happy household, well-tended, if a bit strained around the eyes. Joe’s father, Mickey, would often run late from work at the office – he was, as Joe describes to his new friend Li, a “shadow on the wall.”

When Joe’s mother died in the simplest, stupidest kind of accident, the already solemn child grew inward rather than out. Framed in the current series of events, he is a 17-year old with bark-hardened hands, and a head full of information lacking emotional context. He reads avidly in a bid to keep ahead of peers; particularly when his father’s drinking spirals them into a council-funded black funk of a house in Reighton. This is Mickey’s old home town, where the economy is sour as off milk. Joe is determined to avoid becoming “just another Dole scummer.”

This proves harder than he’d feared. He finds himself drawn into feral teen gang wars, played out on the town’s disused rail line; when he makes an unlikely friendship pact with Li, a girl leading a double life in the footsteps of her older sister, he feels himself diminished by events. He is fighting for his own identity.

None of this is aided by the childhood reputation his father left town to escape. Joe is now bearing the brunt of old blows. To cap it all, his insomniac nights are plagued by nightmarish visions of brambles, a rising blue moon, and blood.

Trying to keep hold of all the above was giving me one heck of a headache. So scrawling the name JOE BLACKTHORNE into the middle of an A3 page, was a vast source of relief – the thoughts flew easily into their own space, not tied by linearity, though I do keep close contact between facts with the necessary colour-coding.


I have a habit of twiddling hair at the back of my head, between my fingers. It’s a comfort thing, dating from childhood. Others have noted that twiddle-speed tends to accelerate/decelerate depending on my mood, and they’ve learned to use it as a personality marker for when I’m best approachable, or hostile as a morning cactus.

I’ve injected habitual/subconscious tics like this into the novel, to work blood through my characters. Some people crack jokes when nervous, others chew on their nails. I do emphasize the need to use tics sparingly though, as a pinch of seasoning, or a character will start to resemble the punchline of a bad joke.

Think about where these tics might come from, who influenced them. Look to your own, to family and friends – watch people out on the street (bus stops and train stations are great places for this, with tics dropped like coins in holey pockets.)

Joe’s a tall lad, gawky with it and – particularly around Reighton – made to feel very aware of how much he resembles his father. He walks with a slight stoop, as a man plodding an old furrowed ditch might. Interestingly, this occurs more frequently towards the start of the novel, and when he meets Li. She is small, fine-boned; he feels he might accidentally crush her. On Joe’s name-cloud, I highlighted this point as narrative non-essential, but of relationship-building note.

Garth Hakken Sr., a male resident of Reighton who has spent much of his life in jail, has the small, twitchy movements of a bird accustomed to confinement. Joe Blackthorne tugs at the thick forelock of his hair, as a subconscious need to distract himself with physical pain from moments of emotional distress. On a basic level, it also relates back to his father being on the Dole, and their lack of spare cash for a cut.

Colour Symbolism

F. Scott Fitzgerald has ever been a source of inspiration to me. In The Great Gatsby, his use of the synaesthetic metaphor transcends literary device, to become a sort of symbolic colour-coding of its own. There’s the green light on Daisy Buchanan’s dock; the continuous presence of yellow, as a sham veneer of gold. These inspired me to better illuminate (or indeed, disguise) my own characters, their intentions and relevancy to the plot.

The term toxic beauty occurs frequently in relation to Li’s older sister, Siobhan. Still missing after 15 years, and with a background chequered in renown as much as disgrace, she’s a girl wonderful to know and daunting to be in the presence of. A girl who completed each school year with top marks, while consistently defying her father’s moderate expectations by holding anti-demolition demonstrations around town, as part of a student body. Not to mention her frequent night-wanderings down the disused line. Her disappearance left deep seeds of doubt and pain in the town.

Her presence is still felt, in the petrol rainbows running down gutters after heavy rainfall; in a secret photograph Li finds, where Siobhan’s customary plain-pretty appearance is transmuted by her wearing “peacock” eye makeup (bright turquoise, broad enough almost to become a mask; brass flares along the lids.) There is the sense of another world, another time; of secrets waiting to be unlocked. All far more interesting, when hidden in plain sight among colours.

Another bearer of secrets, is the character of Daena. She is a wanderer through my fictional world (a Stephen King-inspired universe, our world yet not, broad and many-tiered), and as such has an undefinable quality. She is pleasant and intelligent, while significantly vague. There is the sense of trying to catch smoke when speaking to her.

To accentuate this, as well as her nomadic life, I gave her the colour blue as a symbolic marker. It lives in the rose tattoo on her shoulder (the blue rose being a sign of mystery, the unobtainable, since none may be naturally bred); in her long blue-black hair, and the alto voice that Joe (who has synaesthesia) describes as “ink floating through water.”

Redgrave is a teacher at the local college; he has a Blackthorne bone to pick, and isn’t fussy whether it comes from father or son. He is a man who carries others’ secrets as much as his own, and is difficult to gauge in terms of allegiance. While acting in an almost-unprofessional manner towards Joe – using his power to undermine the boy at every turn – he is also seen to demonstrate a curiously empathetic warmth towards the lonely Li, as he once did her sister.
To enhance this unsteady image, I refer to his having purple-black eyes, to their strange iridescence, as of a bubble’s slippery take on the world.

Sensory Spectacle: Write what you Know, Learn what you Don’t

I really can’t reiterate enough the worth of personal experience when it comes to writing. Sure, you can research a subject in its entirety, bone up on notes – but without actual sensory markers to give them context, these facts may fall a bit flat. Field research can be fun (or in my case, literal.)

It’s worth considering the simple beauty of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s in this context. His minimalist prose and knack for striking to the core of a subject, helped him weave characters as exotic as they were universal. In the spring of 1958, Capote was on the New York scene. Among social gatherings, he would find the inspiration for his novella with the local tittle-tattle and socialite scandals; it’s acknowledged that his composite template for Holly Golightly was in fact drawn from many of the Manhattan socialites he had known:

“… the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks.” (2.12), Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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In writing characters, I try to find them in their natural environments. In this way, I learn their habits, so as to be better equipped for descriptions of response, when I stick my hand into the mix and shake things up. In the case of the novel, I’ve wandered a local disused rail line so as to truly know the slippery judder of my boots on mossy sleepers; testing their give, when not only walked but run across, as my protagonists are forced to do when chased by a gang. I want to embed the images with whatever sensory perception I can. When Joe runs hell-for-leather down the overgrown line, I want the audience to know that tingling bitch-slap of a nettle on the skin, or the weird korma smell which ferns give off when hot under a midday sun.

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Consider symbolism again, when writing the relationship between circumstance and character. Mariah Hakken, wife of the afore-mentioned jailbird, lives on a decaying council estate with four tearaway kids; she has been riddled up with mental illness for much of her life, and now exists in a near-hermit state in their family home. The tang of the corrugated iron roof is her bitterness; the sickly sweet scent of the buddleia overflowing in great purple swathes, is her life degrading by deadly degrees.

Take yourself out of your own environment, if it won’t fit that of the character you’re trying to depict. Ask friends/family for passes into places you’d normally have no right of way to – though if you’re writing a court room drama / cop thriller, do take care to keep the photography and notations to a minimum when in public. You don’t want to be suspected of anything nasty, and definitely don’t want your precious notes confiscated, when all you were trying to do was capture the sticky sparseness of a coffee-ringed interview room.

Your audience may well have already read other works of fiction in your genre – convince them that yours is different. It’s like a lived-in pair of shoes, easy to slip on and walk around in. When describing a situation, I like to call upon all five senses wherever possible, putting their slant on things – but it’s important to keep within the personal experience of whichever character being written. It’s no good having an alien character wax lyrical about how the twin sunset they’re watching is akin to the bombs of the London Blitz, if they were never there.

Keep within context, but don’t be afraid to go out on a limb when it comes to elaborating on sensory experience.

Walk to your own beat

As mentioned in this blog entry, I work to a specific soundtrack for each fictional piece, with one or more artists assigned to a theme and/or mood. Just playing them before I begin writing, can frame me neatly in the right mindset. A track may flow on my iPod shuffle, and the melody/lyrics will create a sense of its belonging in the blood and narrative arc of a character.

Incidentally, this ties to field research. I’ve scared myself nearly witless with twilight wanderings of local woodland, listening to Soley’s Kill the Clown; while jotting down notes of what I feel, I’m very conscious of the hairs on my neck going up, and write that in too – plus anything that immediately springs to mind, by way of comparison.

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Personal Reference – Opinion and Dialogue

You don’t need to go smashing through every fourth wall here. Anything ladled on may act as an anchor rather than a buoyant to your work. Narrative structure can become warped by reality, character voices may be lost in your own shout.

That being said, don’t be afraid to raid your own past and that of others. I’m currently rereading all of my old journals, dating back to teen school days, in a bid to recapture the often irrational and overly dramatic mindset of that time. Hormones don’t play easy with teens, and believe me this would be serious research, if I could only stop cracking up.

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My first journal began life in 1998, when I was on the cusp of adolescence. The full-on existence of school life sings off each scribbled, exclamation-marked page. Every sentence is a staccato, or a meandering stream of thought. None of these silly adult inhibitions, like sentence structure. I’ve found that child-woman again – all the longing, the lust, the fear of change and changing emotions (not to mention what growth spurts were doing to my body.) The pale fear of being left behind; the dark, twisting terror of becoming lost in the face of a teeming adult world.

Call up old school friends, get them down the pub – rehash shared experiences, while keeping careful note of their own inflection on stories. This is particularly handy if writing a retrospective narrative; more often than not, rose-tinted glasses are apt to be slipped on. See how what is said, compares with what’s based in your own memories. If you’re feeling brave, ask for their memoirs. Go to the library, pick up the autobiography of someone you’re interested in, or is in some way relevant to your piece. Draw inspiration from their experiences.

When working across genres, you will find that – regardless of what a character wields, preaches, loathes, stands up for – there are hearts beating beneath; there are inspirations to be drawn on, memories to be consumed by. Allow each soul their own opinions and ideals, based on the hand they’ve been dealt in life.

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