Symbolism, Themes, and Motifs

Everyone has the exact same story about looking far too closely at details in books. You probably all have the story of the high school teacher who told you that the fact the car in The Great Gatsby was yellow was emblematic of a yellow light and therefore a warning, and how this made you want to yell “Or the car was just yellow!” and hate required reading. I’m with you to a point: I don’t like being told exactly what to look for or learn from a particular book in order to pass a test, which is how the bulk of high school English classes are taught.

At the same time, though, I’m a sucker for the kinds of small details that I hated being told I should look for. Now that these things aren’t required of me, I will happily read, watch, or listen to the same stories again and again just to analyze everything that’s there. I can appreciate the creativity and thought that goes into tying even tiny details into a larger work, and honestly, it makes me feel smart when I can connect those dots. What I find even more fun is when I can create those kinds of connections in my own work.

I’m taking a different approach to my paranormal romance draft this time around and striving to deliberately work in symbolism. As I’ve mentioned a few times previously, my protagonist reads tarot, but in the rough draft this wasn’t much more than a quirky hobby that didn’t really impact the plot at large. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing with a character having a quirky hobby: the thing is that, since I wrote that first draft, I’ve learned a lot about tarot and appreciate the symbolism and themes way more. There’s also a part of me that just really wants to show off my newfound knowledge, but that’s neither here nor there. So I’ve been poring over Corrine Kenner’s Tarot for Writers (which is my favorite writing prompt book to date, if you were looking for a recommendation) learning everything I can about the finer points and the history of everything from the major arcana to astrology to see what I can bring into the picture. For those of you that know tarot and the romance genre, I can tell you right now that I see a whole lot of the suit of cups in my future. So many emotions.

What surprised me, as it always tends to, is how much I was thematically able to work in despite my then-superficial knowledge. Based on a very loose understanding of the major arcana, I decided that my leading man was The Hanged Man and my leading lady The Empress and did more digging on those two cards in particular to see what else I could incorporate. It turns out I don’t need to do much work for either of them: he’s a thinker that sacrifices his own comfort and happiness in the hopes of a brighter future, and she’s a maternal artist from money veering dangerously close to the “manic pixie dream girl” character type. It also turns out that The Hanged Man and The Empress can be birth cards: as a pair, they connote, among other things, generosity and loyalty. Those sound like pretty good traits for partners to have, and knowing this is comforting for someone who plans on writing a healthy romantic relationship.

To switch gears a bit, in the novel that I’m querying now, I didn’t realize until way later the biggest, overarching theme. The long short of the novel is that the characters are superheroes, and one of the major themes tying everything together is control. The world at large is engaged in a political power struggle that the main antagonist is trying to simultaneously dismantle and use to her advantage: she uses her abilities to literally control the minds and bodies of others, but she also maintains her grip on people by manipulating the information and ideas that they have access to. Another character is struggling with her mental health when her life circumstances don’t allow her to take care of herself. A couple of characters are trying to find ways to fight the systems holding them back when their abilities don’t always lend themselves to active participation. And everyone, in one way or another and as cheesy as it sounds, is fighting for their own destinies. That idea of “control” is one that would get analyzed to death the moment that people finished reading, but I honestly didn’t see it until a few drafts in.

I’m still a young enough writer that I can hammer out the kinks in my system where details like these are concerned. I suppose the only question now is whether this qualifies as me trying too hard or not hard enough.

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5 thoughts on “Symbolism, Themes, and Motifs

  1. I think it means you’re right on track. I know there are some authors who say you have to think about theme from before you put ink to paper, but there are others I’ve heard who talk more like you are here, where they wait for the themes to emerge in the second draft. And there might even be some who never think about it but are good enough at their craft that it comes through naturally.

    Personally, I tend more towards the second group, because to me the message isn’t the point – enjoyment of the story is the point. If a message comes along with that, great, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the story, the characters, and the readers’ enjoyment.

    (On a ‘side note’, isn’t it amazing how you start to like things you were once forced to do once there’s no longer someone standing over you saying ‘do this, look for that, etc.’? I, too, have come to enjoy analyzing stories, something that physically pained me at various points of my educational career.)

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    1. My first drafts tend to be more about the plot, characters and, to a lesser extent, the world. Details can always come later, but I need to do most of the work (and the fun part, frankly) RIGHT NOW. I’ve heard the adage that you don’t know what you’re writing until after you’ve done the first draft, and I think that’s true in the sense that I’ve described here: all of the happy accidents can make a work so much better.

      College taught me how to love required reading, but there are still a lot of classics that I’d love to tackle now that I don’t have to rush through them, find the “right” answers, or write a paper by the end of the week. Maybe I’ll even appreciate Jane Austen this time around.

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  2. I’m very intentionally trying to work symbolism into my upcoming draft as well – although it’s going to be interesting because the biggest culture playing a role will be African.

    By the way, do you know of Joseph Campbell’s book “Myths to Live By?” I CANNOT recommend it enough for this type of subject matter (granted I’m only 20 pages in, but it’s already impressed the hell out of me).

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    1. Funny that you mention African culture, because I was toying with an urban fantasy novel idea along those lines. So many of these stories with “religion as magic” kind of systems use Christianity, Norse, or Pagan mythologies, but I thought that there could absolutely be one where Voudon was portrayed sympathetically rather than as the shrunken heads/hexes/hoodoo picture we’ve been fed for years. This will take way more research than the project that initially inspired the thought, though, so it’s on the back burner.

      I’m not extremely familiar with Joseph Campbell’s work, but it sounds like I need to give it a shot. Have you looked at his other books or just the one?

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      1. So far I’ve looked at just the one, but I’m constantly having others recommended to me. The one that comes up most frequently so far is called something like “The Hero with 1,000 Faces” which a couple of writer friends have recommended to me.

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