Symbolism in Fiction Writing

Woman writing in journal on seaside of Italy.
••• Chris Hendrickson/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

In literature, symbolism is used to produce impact, which it accomplishes by attaching additional meaning to an action, object, or name. Symbolism takes something that is usually concrete and associates or affixes it to something else in order to give it a new and more significant meaning.

In other words, symbolism allows a writer to convey something to their audience in a poetic way instead of saying it outright. This indirect approach allows an author to create nuance and complexity. The caveat for authors is that the entire context of the story needs to support the symbol's meaning. For example, in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 book "To Kill a Mockingbird," the bird symbolizes innocence and beauty. Lee chose the mockingbird because it's without guile. A mockingbird's only one purpose in life is to sing—it doesn't want to harm anyone.

Because of this, killing a mockingbird is considered an act of senseless cruelty.

5 Different Types of Symbolism, with Examples

Metaphor: A metaphor is an implicit comparison of one thing to another without the use of a commonly known sign or equation. For example, a metaphor does not compare something using the word "equals." One familiar example of a metaphor is Edward Bulwer-Lytton's expression "The pen is mightier than the sword." English playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe's famous quote "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" is another example.

A subcategory of metaphors is "personification," attributing a human characteristic—or emotion—to an animal, object, or concept. An example can be found in T.S. Eliot's work "Prelude," where he says, "The winter evening settles down."

Simile: A simile differs from a metaphor in that a simile is not implied—it explicitly denotes a comparison. A simile very often uses either the word like or as. Two examples of similes are, "My love is like a red, red rose," and, "As strong as an ox."

Allegory: An allegory is very similar to a metaphor in the sense that something—usually something abstract or religious—is implicitly articulated in terms of something else that is concrete. The difference between an allegory and a metaphor is that when an allegory is employed, the comparison reflects the entire work—or a large part of the work. The best example is "The Pilgrim's Progress." This book by John Bunyan uses characters to present a universal picture of Christian life and is the second-best-selling book in history, after the Bible.

Archetype: The plot of a piece of fiction—or the central element in a piece of fiction—that recurs in cross-cultural myths is called an archetype. Perhaps the best example of an archetype is the literary description of the devil in various works as a cloven-hoofed, horned humanoid.

Myth: A myth is a close cousin of allegory in the sense that it is almost always symbolic and extensive. Myths can include an entire work. While the creation of myths has evolved over time—in the sense that they're no longer specific to one culture—they are still considered communal or cultural in nature. One of the most famous myths is that of Icarus. In Greek mythology, Icarus tries to escape from Crete by fastening wings to his back made from feathers and wax. According to the myth, Icarus foolhardily flew too close to the sun—and fell into the ocean.

This myth prompted the saying, "Don't fly too close to the sun."

Orson Welles' Approach to Symbolism

Filmmakers often attribute emotional significance to objects. These visual symbols help draw attention to a character's motivations, which was the case of Orson Welles' film classic "Citizen Kane." In that movie, a sled ultimately works as a symbol of the main character's innocence and idealism, which he left behind in pursuit of money and power. The sled is one of the most famous symbols in film history.

Why Writers Like to Use Symbolism

It's hard to identify a work of literature—from short poems to epic plays—that lacks some kind of symbolism. Authors like to use symbolism in their work because it accomplishes the following:

  • Helps readers visualize complex concepts and follow central themes
  • Affords writers the chance to relate big ideas in an efficient, artful way
  • Fosters independent thinking among readers as they go through the process of interpreting the author's text
  • Adds emotional weight to the text
  • Helps to conceal a theme that may be too controversial to approach openly