Why Use Symbols in Your Writing

Have you considered adding a symbol in your novel? Some of the best novelists (and nonfiction book authors) use them to add depth to their stories and to their characters. What exactly am I talking about? A symbol can be a living thing like a butterfly, eagle, or an old oak tree. Or it can be an inanimate object like a family home, a seashell, or a precious stone. Throughout the story the object takes on a meaning larger than itself. It adds layers of emotional meaning that otherwise you’d have to explain. And it can be useful in showing depths of a character’s personality.



A butterfly can represent beauty and strength. The fact that a butterfly must struggle to get out of its cocoon or it’s forever damaged is often used to show that people sometimes must struggle in order to grow. Recently I read a book where the butterfly was used to demonstrate captivity through the eyes of a wife whose husband was a collector. Her abusive relationship was slowly revealed and likened to how he pinned his butterflies to a mat.


In the book Beloved, Toni Morrison used a ghostly baby to represent a woman’s guilt over the killing of her own child. Throughout the novel the apparition grew larger and more horrific and damaging. When the main character received forgiveness, the ghost totally disappeared.  


In the story Piano Lessons, the author uses an old piano, beautifully carved with scenes from black history. One member of the family wants to sell it and another wants to keep it. To each it represents something different. The clash of values speaks volumes about each character and what matters most to them


Another author used her husband’s overstuffed chair in a true story of a widow’s journey. She began by showing how much the chair meant and ended by showing the day she sold it as a symbol of her healing.

What not to do:


Avoid clichés like red roses meaning love, seasons denoting the aging process, and a broken mirror for bad luck. Make sure whatever you devise that it arises naturally from your story.

Some critics scorn the use of symbols as artificial and pretentious, but others agree they make for a satisfying ending if used well.                                                                                   

2 thoughts on “Why Use Symbols in Your Writing

  1. Diane Dean White

    I like this idea, Judy. I’ve seen this in a few in books, and when I wrote Carolina in the Morning, I started each chapter with a palmetto palm, the S.Carolina symbol. I’ll have to think and come up with something in my WIP.


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