Monday, May 23, 2016

Elements of Storytelling—Symbolism and Iconography in Fiction

While a lot of what I mention is self-evident, I’m actually including source references with this article due to the, ahem, “touchiness,” of some of the symbolic aspects that I mention. So, yeah, you’ve been warned:

Symbols are everywhere, and we are only beginning to understand the full psychological effect on the human psyche. Why are people attracted to certain colors?1 What’s up with the color black always being viewed as a sign of evil or masculine aggression? Why did the Cross (which exists in many forms, like the Egyptian Ankh) give people a sense of protection even before the Christian era?2 And what does all this have to do with writing fiction?

Long before writing and language became the dominant form of communication, ancient humans used to paint symbols onto cave walls to communicate vital information to the rest of their tribes, like the best food to hunt and where to find it.3 So reaction to symbolic imagery was ingrained into the human psyche thousands of years before the first Sumerian cuneiform was created. The skill that ancient humans used to interpret the symbols is what we today call symbolism, better called symbol literacy4.

As writing and language became the dominant communication method our skill in symbol literacy diminished; although, it never completely died out, and much of it became incorporated into the great myths and fairy-tales--the forerunners of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. And it is in those three genres where you find the ancient symbolic iconography appear most often, whether it’s the color symbols used by Edgar Allen Poe or Tolkien representing Sauron as a fiery All-Seeing Eye. Often the image use is a subconscious act during the writing process, but sometimes the writer knows exactly what he’s putting in there and its intended effect.

Nowhere does it become more obvious than in big-budget films like Ultraviolet. You could possibly write an entire book about the symbolic iconography in this film alone, and there are hundreds of films filled with symbols to one extent or another. But let’s just break down one or two of the basics.

In Ultraviolet you have the headquarters of the main antagonist, Dax. The walled compound is in the shape of a cross (a symbol for Life and Resurrection2), and while some of the structures are pyramidal, the main building in the cross’s center possesses a domed roof comprised of triangular glass panes, representing the “dome” of the Sun. Why does the evil guy responsible for tyranny and death dwell here? Because he’s the corruption from within. It’s no accident that the final battle involves flame-covered swords and that the compound gets destroyed by fire, for fire is a two-edged sword that can both destroy and purify at the same time. Throughout the film, the hemophage protagonist, Violet (a color made by the mixing of red with blue, or war with peace) acts as a matronly protective Madonna figure to a child named Six who was engineered with a pathogen that could doom the entire world but also contains the key to possibly cure the hemophages. Six dies, thus saving the world from the pathogen, and Violet’s tears (representing the Water of Life) later “resurrects” Six as a hemophage. Whether the hemophages will one day be cured is left open, but the Twice-Born God2 nature of Six combined with the Isis/Horus (or Mary/Christ) relationship between him and Violet intentionally leaves the viewer feeling hopeful.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey resurrects as Gandalf the White. The color white represents goodness, or the Light. But why does it represent this? Because in ancient times the rise of the Sun meant a new day dawned and they had survived one more night. Night was the most fearful time of all for ancient humans. Predators came out at night who could see at night far better than humans could. That is why night, or darkness (black), was personified as evil; and day, or light (white), was seen as good. This is why white was often viewed as a feminine aspect in matriarchal societies but as a masculine aspect in patriarchal societies. And it is also the reason why the Sun plays such a prominent role in ancient myths all over the world.

Sauron is described as “a great eye, lidless, wreathed in flame” that can pretty much see anything he wants. The All-Seeing Eye is an ancient symbol that represented the Eye of God which the ancients often viewed as being the Sun. So why is a being of evil (or night) pretending to be God? Just as Set seeks to stop Ra, and Satan seeks to stop Christ, because he wishes to be the ruler over all (God); so too does Sauron seek to stop Illuvatar by pretending to be Illuvatar, but he can only succeed at being a cheap imitation.

The above are only tiny examples of the richness and depth to be found in the meaning of symbols that appear in literature, film, music, or even the building you passed on your way to the grocery store. But how can you incorporate such richness to enhance your own fiction?

The first step is to understand that the symbols cannot become the story, they only serve to enhance the story you’re trying to tell or to provide a “hidden” story within the story (which Neil Gaiman does quite often).

Second, unless you plan to let your subconscious have all the fun, you have to know your symbols. A good book to get is Elisabeth Goldsmith’s Ancient Pagan Symbols. That book is the mother load of ancient symbols and their meanings. A good study of the psychological influence symbols and colors can have on the human mind can be found, of all places, on YouTube: Michael Tsarion--The Subversive Use of Sacred Symbolism in the Media. It’s in eleven parts and is an eye-opener to the amount of ancient symbols people get bombarded with on a daily basis and how corporations use them to sell their products. Tsarion is well-known among the alternative research field, and many of his views on other things fall in the category of conspiracy theory. However, I find his work on symbolism well-researched and much along the lines of what people like Elisabeth Goldsmith, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Joseph Campell has written or said on the subject. So, Dan Brown, eat your heart out.

And last but not least, read Poe. Poe knew symbolism, and more importantly he knew how to incorporate them into his stories without making it too obvious. Of course, if you try to bombard your readers like Poe did, you better know exactly what you’re doing; otherwise, it’ll fall flat.

But whether you decide to bombard the human psyche with “in-your-face” iconography, use it sparingly to enhance a scene or two, or just study it to learn what your subconscious had known all along, one thing is for certain. Once you become symbol literate, you’ll never again see the world through the same eyes.

And, with a little luck and some skill, neither will your readers.


1. Color Theory--Color Lessons in Art and Design.                                                                              

2. Goldsmith, Elisabeth (2003, June 11). Ancient Pagan Symbols (Illustrated Edition). Red Wheel.

3. Cave Paintings. New World Encyclopedia.


  1. Hmm, I'm loving the color theory reference. Some of my symbols are accidental, but I do incorporate lots on purpose.

    Thanks for the exploration.