[Guest Post] Symbolism: The Placeholders and How to Use Them

Welcome author Jonathan Vars back to the blog!

Jonathan Vars is a Christian fiction writer from New England, founder of the writing website voltampsreactive.com. His work in literary analysis of classic films and literature has been published by academic websites and he is the author of the soon to be released novel Like Melvin, for which he is currently writing a sequel. In addition to writing, Jonathan enjoys running, painting, and trying not to freeze to death in the winter. He is currently willing to consider guest blogs for his website. 

writing-336370_1920-2Symbolism is something of a neglected art nowadays. The subtle highlights it adds to a story are often ignored by writers who are under the cynical belief that their readers will not discern the parallels being drawn and consider delving into symbolism a wasted effort. Authors with this mindset do not only their readers but also themselves a grave injustice. While it is often true that much of symbolism is missed in the first read through of a story, it appeals deeply to the subconscious. The human mind is much more sensitive to patterns than we often recognize. Symbolism appeals to this sensitivity by underlining key information and themes.

One of the most valuable features symbolism offers is that of the placeholder: the object or circumstance that can be used to represent characters, plot points, or themes. Placeholders can be used as physical representations of somewhat elusive and intangible variables. Those who are able to master the use of the symbolic placeholder possess an incredibly valuable tool. Here are just a few ways symbolism can be used as placeholders:

Object Equals Character

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the symbolic placeholder is that of an object representing a character. The real beauty of this unique form of imagery is that after establishing the connection between the character and the object, the object itself can be substituted for the character at will. For example: the character of Sherlock Holmes has a commonly known association with a pipe and deerstalker cap. This connection between object and character is so strong that many collections of Sherlock Holmes stories abstain from pictures of the detective himself, opting instead for the apparel for which he is famously known.

The Constant

The constant is that symbolic object that spans the entire length of the story. It is used to indicate the state of events occurring around it, almost a timekeeper. Being that the constant is often used to mark the passage of time, it is fitting to choose objects which will inevitably be affected by time, for example the growth of a tree. The constant serves as a “safety zone” for the reader, an object which though it may change, never departs, adding a sense of stability to the world within the story. Being that the reader will form something of a dependency on the constant, it is sometimes fitting to suddenly alter it to coincide with a sudden change in the story, for example the rose in Beauty and the Beast.

Representations of Authority

Much of fiction relies somewhat heavily on symbolic placeholders to indicate varying levels of authority. As it is often necessary to establish very quickly whom is in authority over whom, focus must be immediately drawn to the symbolic placeholder of power, often indicated by height and or size. If done correctly, this authority can be conveyed to the audience seamlessly, regardless of the physical appearance of the character in the authority. Perhaps one of the most brilliant uses of this concept comes from the film It’s a Wonderful Life. In this movie, Harold F. Potter, the villainous authority figure, is a wheelchair bound old man. Although a wheelchair would stereotypically communicate weakness, the imposing, almost throne like appearance of the chair instantly indicates his authority over those around him.

Indicators of Reality

Though seldom used, these placeholders are absolutely vital to stories that deal with altered realities. They are the compass points in a world that is often confusing to the audience. A notable example would be the top Leonardo DiCaprio’s character carries with him in Inception. The top is an indicator to the character and the audience of the phase of reality being featured. Not only can these objects represent a constant point, they can also indicate the very fact that reality has been altered. Consider for example the clocks in 1984 which per the opening line “were striking 13.” Immediately, the clock has become a symbolic placeholder for an altered reality, in this case, a dystopian future society.

Animals as Symbolic Placeholders

Animals serve as rather complex symbolic placeholders in fiction. The complexity comes from the simple fact that animals are living beings, adding a dynamic aspect to the symbolism they convey. Perhaps the most common animals used in this way are house-pets, the reason being that that these animals are well known to adapt to and adopt the patterns and characteristics of their owners. Because of this phenomenon, the possibility of the symbolic placeholder comes fully into play. The reclusive cat, the happy-go-lucky dog, the proud songbird, all can be used to define and symbolize their owners.

These are just a few of the ways symbolism can be used to redefine the characters and major elements of a story. Symbolism is the deeper layer, the subtle undertone of the artwork that cause the story to spring to life. Symbolic objects are an invaluable tool in the writer’s toolbox, one of the many ways that writers can depart from bland narration and plunge deeply into full, vibrant imagery. To leave out placeholders is equivalent to leaving out a key spice for a recipe. The final result will still be palatable, but not nearly as flavorful.writing-336370_1920-2