Personal symbols can be a powerful tool in fiction. I rate them right up there with theme because in fact, they can be utilized to convey your theme. More effectively than mere words.
That sounds crazy, right? I mean, as a writer, I’m writing a novel with words. How can I convey a theme with symbols if I don’t write about it?
Well, I do write about it, but the symbol isn’t brazenly pointed out. I don’t put up a flashing sign with my words saying, “Here! Look at this object. It’s trying to convey a message.”
No, it’s more subtle than that. Instead, you’ll often see the image feature or get brief mention in several scenes. Then slowly, it begins to work into your subconscious. Good writers can establish a rhythm with these symbols, bringing them in and out of the story at just the right time so that the reader begins to draw the right conclusions or experience a similar emotion every time that symbol appears.
I was contemplating this phenomenon last night while fleshing out a rough draft scene in the Lord of Vengeance, the second book in my Historical Fiction series. In it, I found my characters gathered around a symbol I’ve utilized time and time again because it has personal meaning to me.
Campfires are very special to me. They have been since childhood. Some of my fondest memories center around campfires. There is something volatile yet so peaceful about watching fire work. It is energy and destruction playing out before your eyes, yet in that violent chemical reaction we find benefit.
It brings heat and comfort. We use it to cook food that gives us sustenance. And like so many that have gone before, there’s something about gathering around a fire that evokes this need to look inward and express ourselves. Be that in story, song, or just good conversation. The symbol of a fire rouses all these things and more.
For me, fire often evokes introspective tendencies. I can reminisce for hours watching a fire. Somehow it brings a clarity of thought. Always, that clarity unearths strong emotion.
So it’s not surprising that any time a campfire features in my writing, the characters are often engrossed in deep, thought, serious conversation, or experiencing an important transition in the story.
See if you notice this in the following excerpt from Rise of Betrayal:
After picketing the horses, Gideon allowed the light from the closest watchfire to guide him from darkness to where the other warriors settled to warm the chill from their bones.
Though the rains stopped long ago, the air remained dank and foggy. Connor stripped his sodden brat from his shoulders and laid it out over a boulder near the fire. Gideon thought to do the same, but too many lads had taken advantage of the limited space there. So he shouldered his wet cloak and endured it as he squatted to extend his palms before the blaze.
A solitary droplet slipped from his damp forelocks and splashed against his brow. Gideon slicked both hair and moisture from his face. As he did so, he felt eyes watching him. Betwixt the flames he saw a cluster of men from Magh Adair. Tiarnán mac Aengus regarded him from their midst.
Tiarnán slipped round his sword brothers and moved in Gideon’s direction. He halted some distance away in the growing fog near the tree line.
“I see your leg has healed.” Gideon uttered as he approached his father’s former tenant.
“Do not expect my thanks.” Tiarnán replied. “That I keep my word to you is more than you deserve.”
“I expect nothing.” Gideon gazed out into the heavy mists thickening round the tree boles like a coverlet. “I do extend thanks to you, though. It cannot be easy supporting us in this cause.”
“You misjudge me. I’ve no reason to withdraw allegiance from Ri Mahon and Lord Brian. My loyalty to them remains. Do not presume the same holds true for you.”
Gideon nodded, dismayed by Tiarnán’s words, but resolute to prevent them from needling him. “Then I leave you to your watch – mac Aengus.”
“Ruadh. I am known among my clansmen as Tiarnán Ruadh.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.” Gideon secured Ardan’s sword in his belt and traversed the throng of men until he found a stout tree to settle against. Large roots protruded from the earth, entangled in vines and covered with a thick throw of moss – a welcome bed after a long day. Gideon reclined against the damp foliage and rolled himself within his frigid brat. Sleep soon overcame him.
So, what do you think? Does personal symbol matter?