I received this question from a young (high school) fan/writer:
“I was just wondering do you ever think about symbolism, metaphor, theme, and allegory when writing your novels? Because I have 3 friends that are writers and none of us really think things like that through. So that might just be because we're young and don't go that deep. But I was wondering whether or not all the stuff about symbolism might just be the opinions of English teachers and not actual writers.”
(Oh, English teachers. What a challenge they have, dissecting works and attempting to inspire young minds to look deeper, especially in an age when attention spans are those of a gnat and overstimulated minds slide around on the surface of things like water skaters.)
My dear young writer—this is a great question. I find myself wrestling with it a bit.
So to begin, some definitions to refresh myself (and others) since this string of words are, in fact, very different in meaning and usage.
Theme (noun): the subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person's thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic.
Allegory (noun): a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
Symbolism (noun): the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities.
Metaphor (noun): a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Also, a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.
So here’s the short answer, my young Paduan. “Yes.”
And then again, “No.”
Early on in my writing journey, Blood Orchids was reviewed in a depth on on a blog, and I was astounded that this unknown reviewer’s analysis had uncovered symbolism and themes in the book I wasn’t even consciously putting in. That said, I didn’t CONSCIOUSLY put them in, which is the “No” part of the answer—and yet there they were, a huge YES, part of the power of the story.
Metaphor is easiest to answer. Every writer must use metaphor effectively, a hammer in the hand of a wordsmith (see, here ya go, an example.)
Symbolism is trickier. The essay on the Garden Urthark blog analyzing Blood Orchids referred to mythology and archetype: “In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye says, archetypes—mythical symbols, patterns—the building blocks of stories—are displaced into stories “by some form of simile: analogy, significant association, incidental accompanying imagery, and the like.” If we stand back from Blood Orchids, we can see the presence of shadowy archetypes from the myth of Artemis (Diana), as goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon, himself a hunter, whom Artemis changed into a stag or object of the hunt for seeing her bathe in a pond—a stag subsequently torn to pieces by his own dogs. The pond shows up in the opening of Blood Orchids. Having waded into the pond to retrieve the bodies of the two murdered girls, Lei is unwittingly discovered by Stevens and Ito to have somewhat disturbed the crime scene.”
Now. Did I write about the pond where the girls’ bodies were found to associate Lei and her warrior spirit with these mythical figures? NO. Not consciously, at least.
Did I mean to write an archetypal symbolic character? YES. In fact, all the best stories that live on in imagination are fashioned of leitmotifs. I became aware of this term through studying Jungian psychology. Jung posited that a “collective unconscious” existed, peopled by “recurrent themes throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.”
Lei embodies the archetype of the Wounded Warrior, a recurrent thematic figure appearing over and over in literature and art worldwide and through all cultures: the damaged, yet heroic figure who overcomes their own wounds by fighting for the justice/salvation of others. What’s different is that Lei is a woman—the Wounded Warrior is more often male in cultural depiction.
(But it’s modern times, and women are now badasses on a regular basis.)
I wrote about archetypes and what I’m trying to do with the Lei Crime Series on Writing a Great Multi-book Love Story in any Genre. I HAVE put a lot of thought into this, as a matter of fact.
Did the series start out that way? No. It was very much a fumbling along process, as all new writers must begin. Can I deliberately choose to create symbolic figures now, as a writer? YES. Karen Walker, the villain of Black Jasmine, is the archetype of the Witch, again a universal figure. Aunty Rosario is the Mother. Stevens is the Wounded Healer, though he has a warrior side too. Keiki, which (deliberately) means Child, is Lei’s emotional child but also the Faithful Companion, one who would give their life in protection.
Allegory is a whole ‘nother animal, and is usually reserved for short stories with a punchline, and NO, my books are not consciously allegorical. (But, they may unconsciously be!)
You see, my young apprentice, that’s the magic of writing and of understanding bigger concepts. You don’t have to think, “I’m writing about the oppression of the masses by the elite few using the symbolic device of Robin Hood figure.” (Broken Ferns) If you know what you’re doing and how to use the knowledge you carry in your mind and heart subconsciously, when you sit down to write an entertaining story, the themes you are uniquely interested in will emerge.
Eleven books into my journey, my themes have emerged and I seem to keep exploring them. Justice. Passion. Revenge. Overcoming. The healing power of love. Good defeating evil. The price of loyalty and the cost and role of faith. And many more.
When I’ve worked through something that I’m exploring in my own life and heart through my writing, I will move on to something else thematically. That seems to be the way of things.
Did I choose my themes? NO.
They seem to have chosen me, and they emerge in my writing in endless spontaneous variations. Every writer has themes they’re put on this earth to explore, and you will only find your themes by writing.
Try ten thousand hours of writing, a number Malcolm Gladwell proposes in his groundbreaking mythbuster nonfiction Outliers. I’ve put in my ten thousand hours, and a helluva lot more, and because of that I know what I know, and I even trust what I don’t know to be what I know and to be part of the whole I’m meant to write.
Will you be able to write your first novel by naming your heroine Diana and having her wear a necklace with a bow and arrow and giving her a dog named Cupid? Please don’t.
But please do open your mind to these ideas. Read as many books as you can, of all different kinds, and think about them at least a little—what do you remember? What stands out as important? What do you mull over in some mindless activity like weeding the yard? Those things that stick in your mind, that fascinate you, are the themes that will likely become the ones that you will explore in your own work.
Write. Be intuitive as you do. Be ruthless. Persevere, take criticism but stay true to your vision. And above all, WRITE. And write some more.
And if you do, the truth of English teachers were trying to impress upon you will one day flow through your own fingers.