Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Symbolism gives double meaning to a writer’s work. Symbolism plays a huge role in fantasy literature. It helps the writers express ideas that would be almost impossible to convey otherwise and brings about a fresh view on the real world.
The archetypes such as the hero, the princess, the witch, the wizard, the ogre, etc., are often present in fantasy novels, as well as an object the heroes want or is at the base of the magic they are doing.
Many of these symbols go back to ancient rites and beliefs, to legends and mythology. They are overused sometimes. The gold ring in The Lord of the Ring is the symbol of love and commitment. The apple in the Bible symbolizes temptation, no wonder it is used in Snow White as the fruit that will lodge into Snow’s throat and will put her in a vegetative state.
However, an obvious symbol is just viewed as cliché, not as another layer of depth added to the story. Sure, a woman in a white robe does not have to inspire purity. It is even cheesy. The Snow Queen is certainly not the image of candor. A sordid marsh might reflect the dramatic atmosphere of a story, but it is so cliché, it might sound artificial to our modern minds. Symbolism is present in the making of the best literature treasures, but the authors did not pick just any kind of symbols, they made up their own.
Symbols foreshadow what will happen in the novel; it is part of the foreshadowing process, the part that adds mystery and anticipation to your story. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the portrait is the symbol of the soul, of the degradation of the human soul when a person embraces vices and chooses pleasure over everything else. Don’t we use the expression portraying man’s soul or spirit? The opium dens in the same novel also symbolize Dorian’s degradation. Dorian takes refuse in the opium dens at the most crucial moments of the novel.
Rites of passage are a constant symbolism in fantasy literature. Actually, there is no story if the protagonist does not go through a growing experience. Some symbols are the passage though portals or mirrors, walking up a ladder, going through a maze, a journey.
In Coraline (2002), the mirror is a powerful symbol of the grave or the casket. The Other Mother wants Coraline to stay, but when Coraline refuses, she locks her within a mirror as punishment. Behind the mirror it is dark and confining like a casket or a closet. She meets three ghost children behind the mirror, each prisoner of the Other Mother. She has sewn button over their eyes to prevent their souls from escaping. That is a reminder of the buttons or pebbles people put over the dead’s eyelids. Think about other tales with a rite of passage like Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871).
The journey, more than anything else, symbolizes the inner journeys of human beings, the changes people go through to grow and the discovery of oneself. Portals symbolize the passage from the real world to the made up world, the conscious to the unconscious, the reality to the dream-world (the imagination). Some examples of portals are the wardrove in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), a painting in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), platform 9 and three quarter as well as the tavern in Harry Potter books (1997-2007), a door in Coraline (2002), a rabbit’s hole in Alice in Wonderland (1865).
Names also are symbolic in many books. Katniss in The Hunger Games (2008) informs the reader that katniss is a plant and that her father warned her that the plant would help her survive if she learns how to find it. If she can actually find “herself”, she’ll survive. The Northmen in Joe Abercrombie’s novels have evocative names such as Caul Shivers, Curnden Craw, Black Dow or Harding Grim.
If you research any study done over a classic, you are bound to find a net of symbols. Many authors do not realize they are using symbols, but they do. Maybe they have other names for what they are doing when they introduce significant objects or recurrent places in their novels, but their stories would not inspire the mind of readers as much if they did not have those symbols in them.
In your writing, think about the landscape, the setting. Many great novels match the place where the protagonists live with what is happening in their hearts. A hero might like black flowers and have an evil or tormented heart. Think about The Scarlett Letter and all the symbolism around the red letter the girl has to wear. Think about Madame Bovary. Flaubert was a genius in terms of symbolism and would hide one in every scene. Search Harry Potter and the way the author hid meanings in what people are saying and even in the name of rooms.
There are many ways to infer morality in your writing through symbolism. Readers might not perceive them at first, but they will when they re-read your story and that will add more meaning to your writing. Symbolism will also add mystery to your story. Imagine a hero who always gathers dirt under his nails, this is symbolic of an unhygienic life and prepares the reader to see something bad from this hero or something upsetting. It is so unusual to have a hero who looks dirty, right? Imagine a protagonist who always wears flowery dresses. Wouldn't she inspire purity and freshness? You do not have to over think it or over do it. Symbolism is like foreshadowing, it comes after the first drafts of your novel have already been written. Plot them well. A few judicious symbols are better than a bunch of cliches.
Examples of Symbolism.
Julie Eshbaugh. “Symbolism – How to make it work in writing.”
Rukhsana Khan. “Symbolism & Enriching Your Writing.”
Idiotekque. “Art III: Symbolism.” Writers Café, http://www.writerscafe.org/courses/Breathe-Life-Into-Your-Writing!/6153/Part-III%3A-Symbolism/6179/
Dictionary of symbolism.
Lucas Reilly. “Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional.” http://mentalfloss.com/article/30937/famous-novelists-symbolism-their-work-and-whether-it-was-intentional