Savvy Saturday – The Strange Power of Symbols

This week’s news, full of pictures of flags being waved in favor of legislation or taken down from government buildings, raises an interesting and integral component of culture that novelists should be aware of: that of the Symbol. By its nature, a symbol is an object that in itself means less than the meaning it is imbued or filled with by other people. Burning two sticks of wood tied together in an X doesn’t mean anything. A burning cross, on the other hand, brings terrifying images to mind of hate-filled violence. Causes in general will choose a symbol of some kind to rally behind, because once a set of meanings for a symbol is established, the display of the symbol itself can convey that entire wealth of meaning without the need for words or long explanation. For novelists, there are two issues to be aware of with regard to symbols: 1) how symbols come to be imbued with meaning, and 2) how symbols change meaning over time.

The answers to these questions are actually related. The human brain likes to categorize things – to say “this goes with that, and X and Y belong together.” When something that has meaning is commonly seen, heard, felt, etc. in proximity with something that has no meaning inherent to itself, the meaning from the first is transferred to the second. (As an aside, this is why celebrity endorsers of certain types are picked to endorse specific types of products. Advertisers hope that having an action star endorse a particular brand of car will make the car seem more heroic, or that having a beautiful model endorse a brand of perfume will give the perfume the perceived ability to make its users beautiful.) The first step in creating a symbol, then, is to take a common, obscure, or new image (e.g. a Mockingjay in the Hunger Games trilogy) and show it every time something important to a particular cause is happening. Some of the gravity of an event, the emotional weight of a speech, or the logic of an argument will get transferred to the symbol every time it is shown – and if the symbol is shown consistently in these situations, it will start to be imbued with meaning.

It is worth noting that while official adoption of a symbol, and official explanation of what a symbol means, helps speed up the process of imbuing it with that meaning, it is not actually necessary for the adoption of the symbol. For instance, if your hero is rescued by a flying Pegasus and forever after emblazons his shield with a Pegasus in flight, eventually, the sign of the flying horse will be associated with the hero, what he does, and what he stands for, even if he never comes out and claims, “This is my symbol and this is why I’m using it.” Very often, however, a particular group will make an explicit connection – however tenuous – between the design of their symbol and the ideology that they want to fill that symbol with. “Just as the Pegasus runs in a herd with his earth-bound kin but lifts himself to the sky through the power of his wings,” a demagogue might say, “so we live today through the grittiness of our earthly struggles, suffering with our unenlightened brothers, but know that we are lifting ourselves upward, out of cruelty, out of warfare, and into the clear skies of freedom!”

Since a symbol has no (or little) inherent meaning of its own, however, its meaning is always in danger of being changed based on its surroundings and how it is used. An innocent but not widely known symbol of peace can be changed into a well-known symbol of radical ideology if a radical waves that flag on behalf of a splinter organization while committing acts of terror. A secondary religious symbol for Sect A can be turned into a primary symbol for a Sect B, taking on the meanings of the Sect B’s worldview in mainstream culture even while Sect A rejects the new meanings it has been given. JK Rowling used this phenomenon to great effect in her Harry Potter series, having the symbol of the Deathly Hallows be fraught with contention since it was both an ancient symbol of a quest for good and honorable things, and also a more recent symbol of an evil wizard’s attempted reign of terror. A symbol’s meaning, in the end, depends on what most people currently think it means. Just because a symbol meant something a hundred years ago doesn’t mean it still has that meaning today, and just because a symbol means something today doesn’t mean that meaning will stay the same tomorrow.

In your stories, consider giving your symbols a history – or even different meanings to different people. Some individuals may not even realize that a symbol has a meaning at all, and could find themselves in a great deal of trouble if they wear a symbol that they think is just “cool” or “pretty” without realizing what it signifies. Additionally, people from different subgroups might have differing opinions about what a symbol means. To one group, a religious icon could mean love and acceptance, while to another group it could mean fear and oppression. If you can properly give meaning to symbols in your story, then, including them can be a powerful way to add depth, breadth, and realism to the worlds you create.

What other symbols have you seen authors create and use well in fiction? Leave a comment below!

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