When I was younger, my English/Creative Writing teachers talked a lot about symbolism in literature. At the time, I thought it sounded like a load of pretentious crap; I swore to myself that I would always be a down to earth storyteller who stayed away from such ostentatious trappings. To paraphrase an Internet meme passed among authors, my curtains would be blue because that’s what color they were… not to illustrate my character’s underlying depression.
Now that I’m older and --hopefully-- wiser, I think I understand the role of literary symbolism a little more clearly. No one disputes the subconscious messages conveyed to us through our nightly dreams. It’s a stereotypical staple of psychoanalysis and hundreds of books have been written to help us understand what the hidden parts of our minds are trying to communicate. Think about it: how many times have you shared the details of a particularly odd or vivid dream only to have the person immediately ask, “So, what do you think it means?”
The reason I mention this is because we, as authors, are basically dreaming in text. When we’re really on a roll, we don’t have to stop and consider what word, phrase, or sentence comes next; it simply flows from our fingertips to the keyboard and appears on our screens as if by magic. In these instances, we’re giving our imaginations and subconscious free reign in the waking world. So it seems only natural the same type of symbolic imagery that peppers our dream worlds would carry over into our written ones.
This was really driven home when I wrote my second novel, Cry Havoc. I decided to challenge myself a bit with that one and see if I could write a 40,000 word rough draft within a consecutive 24 hour period. When I began this formidable task, all I knew about the story was I wanted the book to start with a city embroiled in urban warfare. I had no idea whom the characters were, what the plot would be, or where this scene of street fighting would lead, but trusted these details would reveal themselves as I wrote.
When I was editing the initial draft, things began to jump out at me. I noticed a reoccurrence of the color yellow within the pages and realized that as long as that color was associated with a character they were safe; but the moment yellow was removed from the situation, things rapidly devolved into brutality and violence. In my early 20s, I’d worked in a chemical plant and after having my finger crushed by machinery was assigned “light duty”, which involved painting scaffolding and ladder cages; the color of paint I used was called Safety Yellow.
In another scene in the book, one of my main characters, Richard, had just returned to his apartment after a particularly harrowing experience. To be specific, he’d just killed an old man and looted his box of rations and supplies, despite the fact that Richard had been a very civilized and sophisticated man his entire life. An argument ensued with his roommates and Richard ended up slamming the boxes down upon a coffee table shaped like the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol, shattering the table in the process. Yin-Yang is a symbol of balance between dark and light and once that table broke, things were never the same for Richard again.
Even though I hadn’t intentionally added symbolism to my work, it still asserted itself and what my teachers and professors had been talking about finally clicked into place. Symbolism isn’t a show of pretension … it’s simply the way our brains are wired. So keep dreaming in text, authors, and trust that your subconscious will lead the way.
You can find out more about William Todd Rose at his blog Six Demon Bag.