Symobilsm in Contemporary Fiction

Whenever studying classics, I notice that authors of centuries past went on symbol trips. I’m talking, symbol-overload. Everything symbolizes something about the rest of the story and furthermore, it becomes super obvious what the symbols are and what they symbolize.Some like Herman Melville do this with finesse: the white hale in Moby Dick encompasses so many different symbols, means so many different things. Remember, though, that some symbols are universal.

It’s nighttime and raining. It’s midnight on the Ides of March. Will something sicked go down? *Cue black cat and witch, cackling while she stirs her bubbling cauldron.*

While two-hundred years ago, this was acceptable, don’t place these overused trappings into your story, cause you’ll be headed straight for Clicheville. When writing in contemporary times, you need to use symbols more intelligently.

As a writer, it is your duty to present a story previously untold. Readers look, however, not just for a surprising plot, but also surprises throughout the story. The best way to do this is to create surprises in description. Make will blow your reader away. So, what I mean is… don’t describe a street by looking at a street. A character knows what a typical street looks like. Don’t tell us what makes the street a street, but sets it apart

Similarly, don’t give your villain an eye patch and a East European accent. Readers see this and know what to expect. So give them the unexpected. When describing someone during winter, don’t bother talking about their clothing if they’re wearing normal clothing. If they’re sporting a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops, that’s worth a mention.

Symbols work the same way. This age of colorism, where red= passion, black= death, and blue= the human psyche, is over. Don’t rely on past conventions. Instead, create your own. Let your symbols be more than just symbols.Let nothing merely symbolize something if it does not truly play a part in your story.

If your main character is the representation of the white male demographic, there’s a problem. that’s a flat character meant only to symbolize something. Don’t do that. I repeat, don’t do that. It’s fine if your characters do “symbolize” some things, but create real characters, not just manifestations of  “the effects of drugs on society” and “father-son relationships.” People are more complicated than can be verbalized in a theme, so write people, not characters.

That’s all for today. While it’s important to study literature of the past, remember that you’re writing for a new generation of readers who may not be amused by you placing a large nose on a “nosy” character.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you notice a decline in apparent symbolism in modern books compared to books written one hundred years ago? Or has symbolism become more vague, suggesting rather “signifying” something? Share your thoughts below.

 

About derekberry

Derek Berry is a novelist, poet, and student located in Charleston, SC.

Posted on November 26, 2011, in books, Characters, classics, novel, Word Salad, writer, Writing, writing advice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Maybe symbolism in contemporary fiction *signifies* just as much–but is handled with more subtlety… 😉

  2. When a Semi-Colon Doesn’t Fit the Syntax

  3. Antigone's Clamor

    I think the ghostwriting phenomenon really had a hand in ruining contemporary fiction. I find it difficult to wade through book lists. In fact, I rarely read a novel unless I’ve gotten at least one recommendation.

    You had a great point about describing what sets the street apart. Our lives are filled with a lot, but they are still filled with routine. Sometimes we get so caught up in the routine that we don’t notice something out of the ordinary. A good writer will point out the significance of the ordinary, which many transcendentalist and Romantic writers and poets did, or he or she will point out the extraordinary. I think the Surrealist painters, especially Dali, pinpointed what they felt was most important or moving in objects and people and translated it to their paintings. You have inspired me…I may write a post about this now…

    Good thoughts! I’m glad there are people who care about symbolism. 🙂

    • I’m pretty stingy about novels, too. I’ll pick up any, but if I’m bored after a few pages, I will not finish the book. Symbolism is strange these days, but I prefer techniques used now over the over-bearing this=that of days of yore.

  4. I, too, read very little fiction these days. The stuff I read is devoid of symbols and bursting with unusual yet multidimensional characters, plots, and scenes. Descriptions are vivid, as are dialogs.

    I also notice that the omnipresent third person narrator is rarely used anymore. The first-person narrator is more in vogue these days. Literature changes with the times…

    • Yeah, I don’t miss the third person omniscient. It’s seems condescending and overbearing telling us, “Now Joseph upon a man named Harris, who was a very, very bad man with a very evil plan!” Even if a character is intended as an “antagonist” (though everyone is a protagonist and antagonists in their own stories), I’d prefer to form my own opinion of that person and his actions rather than allow the author to implant ideas in my head.

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