As humans, we often find extra meaning in simple things. For example, many of us see people or creatures when we look at clouds. You can use this habit of creating connections to make something significant to your main character, or foreshadow something for your readers. Perhaps a murder’s about to happen whenever there’s a red object in the room. Or maybe your protagonist can’t stand the smell of vanilla because they were eating an ice cream when they learned of their true love’s death.
You might need to scale it back if your characters are tripping over symbolic objects every six seconds, but the occasional encounter with something important to them can be really effective. You can ramp up the tension and complicate matters in this way with a bit of planning.
I’ll give you an example from my own life: I hate rainbows. That’s a strange character quirk on its own, but here’s why.
I took the above picture in 2019, and things were going pretty well at the time. I was excited about the future, and everything felt like it was slotting into place. However, three days after this was taken, I got my first real taste of bereavement. The grief shattered my life for months, and the world suddenly looked like a very bleak place. As I came to terms with things, I found myself revisiting that picture.
The rainbow became a false promise that everything was going to be okay. Even four years on, I’m drawn back to that time whenever I see one. This was particularly hard when the first Covid-19 lockdown happened in 2020. Across the UK, people started drawing rainbows and sticking them in their windows in a display of hope for a better tomorrow. But for me, they were a reminder of loss.
Not the most pleasant tale (especially as it’s true), but it would make for one heck of a narrative device! (Netflix hasn’t called about dramatising my life yet, but I’m expecting to hear from them any day now.) A character might become tense, upset or angry around such a symbol.
You could make this lead to conflict with an enemy, or even an ally who doesn’t understand their issues. How would your protagonist, mercilessly bullied at school for their fear of butterflies, react if their love interest bought them a butterfly brooch? Perhaps that small issue would be the start of the relationship-destroying snowball integral to the plot.
Or perhaps their relationship with said symbol shows how they grow and change during the story. You could have a child who’s scared of dogs because their uncle used to threaten them with his Alsatian. Perhaps they eventually triumph as an adult when they confront their tormentor. The story might end with them adopting a large dog to prove that their old antagonist has no hold over them anymore.
Can you think of any good symbols in books? Or have you included some in your own writing? Comment below or email me to let me know!
(Full disclosure: I don’t actually hate rainbows now. I discussed my loss in therapy, which helped a lot. And these days, it’s lovely when my toddler comes back from nursery and tells me about the room where the staff read them stories. It’s called the rainbow room. Character arc complete, I guess!)