On Symbolism (Part 1 of 2)

I’ve been thinking a lot about symbolism lately, and the different forms it can take, specifically, how to do it well or poorly as a writer.  Of course, I’m writing this with myself in mind: your mileage may vary, I am not a lifecoach, etc… but this is what I like to read and how I like to write.

People sometimes like to read a complex symbolism into every possible detail of a story.  That’s fine, if they get more out of the story that way, but I don’t think writers should necessarily write with this in mind.  For example, Flannery O’Connor was once interviewed by a reporter who seemed fixated on the color of Misfit’s hat (in the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find).  He kept asking, rephrasing, and re-asking why the murderous man wore a black hat, until O’Connor famously replied, “To cover his head!”  Sometimes a black hat is just a black hat, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud.

That said, symbolism can be a good thing, since it can add complexity and emotional depth to a story, if it’s done well.  Basically, there are two ways to do symbolism: internal and external symbolism (I believe these are my terms, but I may be borrowing them without remembering where I heard them).

External symbolism involves the use of common symbols, colors, visuals, etc. that will hopefully convey meaning to the readers.  This would include such things as the color of a character’s hat or eyes, meaningful character names, etc.  Generally, this kind of symbolism is the only kind available to artists, poets, songwriters, and others who work in direct media.

External symbolism can be powerful, if it is used well.  Sometimes it works perfectly within the setting: Benedict wears a long, black coat to conceal the weapons he carries, a completely practical reason.  But anyone who’s ever heard Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” (which itself references John Milton’s Paradise Lost) or Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat” will recognize the similarity.  Everyone else will see the resemblance to the black cloak worn by the grim reaper, the black coats worn by gunslingers in old western movies, black as the color of mourning and grief, etc.  Long black (coat/cloak/dress/veil) represents death, but from Benedict’s perspective, he just needs a place to hide his guns and machete.

Naming children after saints was a common practice in the Middle Ages, and so we have Benedict, Augustine, and Juliana.  I almost backed away from this, because ‘meaningful’ names are just about the most hokey and overused piece of external symbolism out there.  The truth is, I couldn’t imagine any other names for them.  These were their names, and everything else seemed terribly false.  Still, I tried to stay away from anything symbolic in other characters’ names.

I believe that authors need to keep external symbolism on a short leash, because it has the tendency to get very hokey and pretentious very quickly.  However, as fiction writers, we have the power to use internal symbolism.

Internal symbolism involves things that are symbolic to the characters:  A pair of ravens follow, haunt, and help direct Benedict, so he nicknames them Memory and Thought, after the two ravens that attended Odin … and because memories of what he has lost haunt him, and thoughts of revenge drive him onward.  He buys a pair of high-powered pistols, and has them engraved with silver raven’s heads and wings, naming one Memory and the other Thought.

You could even call Benedict, Augustine, and Juliana’s names examples of internal symbolism: their parents named them after saints, hoping to encourage righteousness and (perhaps superstitiously) to ensure good fortune, borrowing a bit of the saints’ surplus grace and favor with God by attaching their names to their children.

At first this seemed to be going well: Benedict was a womanizer, but he was a strong man, a warrior, and possessed enough tactical and logistical sense to take over the knightly estate when his father passed.  Augustine was studying to go into the priesthood, since rules of primogeniture meant the elder son (Benedict) inherited the entire estate, and Augustine just got the family name.  Juliana wanted to join a convent, but had submitted to her father’s will that she marry another nobleman’s son, to help unite their fiefdoms and build their fortunes together.

Then it all fell apart.  Juliana was murdered, Augustine became a vampire lord, immortal and incredibly powerful for a millennium, and Benedict swore revenge, if it took a thousand years.  Now, Juliana is dead, Augustine is a creature of darkness, and Benedict is a vengeful, wandering killer.  That they carry the names of the saints is a bitter irony, especially to Benedict, who once believed in the church with superstitious fervor (clearly, that belief didn’t extend to sober living or chastity, but that is so often the case), and now finds himself as alienated from church and God as his brother.

Well, this has turned into an unusually long post.  I’ll leave it here, and perhaps return to it soon.  I haven’t touched on the symbolism in The Red Lands yet, and I haven’t given any advice on where the line is between too much and just right (in part because I’ve hardly “proven in” enough to be giving advice, and in part because that line is pretty subjective).  I’ll try to tackle that in my next post.

Reference:

I’ve heard about this from a number of places, but the source that really taught me the most is James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel.  I ordinarily don’t recommend books on writing by people who aren’t currently making a living as fiction writers (Frey is making bank from writing books about writing now, and to the best of my knowledge hasn’t published any novels in over a decade), but this is a good book by a novelist who did quite well for himself for many years, written when that fiction success was still quite fresh.  In some ways, it’s a bit dated, and in others, I just outright disagree (Rewriting is not writing.  Period.  It’s editing, and not all writers are good editors.  Dean Wesley Smith is 100% right on this one).

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