Home > Blog > Blogging > What is Symbolism

What is Symbolism

by | Apr 1, 2023

One of the most exciting things about consuming art, whether that art is a T.V. show, painting, or novel, is dissecting the layers of meaning within a given piece. There’s the literal things which happen in the novel, and then there’s the symbolic meaning—and the thing is, you probably already pick up on a lot of it without realizing.

Artists rely on symbols to add depth and layers of meaning to their work, but this only works if the reader understands symbols to begin with. Luckily, in this article, we’re going to cover the basics of symbolism: we’ll talk about what symbolism is, discuss different types, talk about how to use it, and review some examples.

Not only will this help you add meaning to your own work, but it’ll help you better understand the media you come across—look for these symbols the next time you’re watching T.V. or reading a book!

What is symbolism?

First things first: what is symbolism?

A symbol imparts meaning beyond what is literally portrayed. For an easy example, think of a heart—not an anatomical heart, but a cutesy red Valentine’s-day situation. When you see one of those, you immediately associate a bunch of other stuff with it—Valentine’s Day, maybe, or the idea of love, or cute things, or sweet things.

Or, you may say, you get angry, because you think all that stuff is stupid. But this doesn’t mean that you’re not getting the symbolism. If you weren’t getting the symbolic meaning, you would have an entirely neutral reaction, because you associate nothing with hearts. Since you see the heart and lovey-dovey stuff comes to mind, your reaction, angry or otherwise, has to do with how you’ve interpreted that symbolic meaning.

Symbols create a kind of shorthand for artists and readers alike. If I show you a heart, you automatically apply a meaning to it based on your experience as a person in our society. If I then show you cutesy hearts only alongside gory or unseemly images, this will create a unique type of unease—I’m juxtaposing an image associated with simple, good feelings with images associated with bad feelings.

See the layers?

Different types of symbolism

There are lots of ways artists can use symbols to build meaning and play with reader expectations. Let’s talk about a few of them. This list isn’t an all-encompassing guide, but instead a sort of starter pack for types of symbols used not only in writing, but in media generally.


A metaphor is when an author compares two things by saying that one of them is the other. This is different from a simile, where the author uses ‘like’ or ‘as.’ Metaphor is more direct, forcing the audience to consider what these two things (even if they seem unlike one another at first glance) have in common.

Consider “all the world’s a stage” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It as an example. He presents the metaphor and then expands upon it in the monologue—this is a classic use of metaphor.


A simile is the comparison of two things using ‘like’ or ‘as.’ If we were to change “all the world’s a stage” to “all the world is like a stage,” we would be making it a simile. Simile is often used for aesthetic description—it gets across a clearer picture, if the author chooses her words correctly.

In Normal People, for example, Sally Rooney, in one passage, describes the sky as “stretched taut and featureless like silk.” This evokes a strong image in the reader’s mind—you can imagine a piece of silk being pulled tight over the character’s heads. Additionally, ‘taut and featureless’ does some work in setting a mood here—this description precedes a very tense, uncomfortable dinner.


Personification is the attribution of person-like qualities to an object. Authors do this to add some texture and strength to their imagery, but personification specifically draws on a reader’s empathy. If something walks or talks or moves like a person, we subconsciously associate it with personhood, and this empathetic connection can be powerful.

If you’re reading a good book with great descriptions, you might say the story “leapt off the page.” You’ve probably heard of lights or shadows “dancing,” or wind “howling.” These are all examples of personification.


Allegory is a type of extended metaphor where the characters, setting, and plot all have a shared symbolic meaning which, when analyzed, gets across a message, which is generally moral in nature. 

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is perhaps the most widely-known example. On the surface, it’s a novel about some very strange farm animals. If you pay attention to the clues Orwell plants throughout the story, it’s actually a moral argument against capitalism.

Color Symbolism

The meaning we attribute to colors impacts all kinds of visual media. Not only do writers use it to paint a picture in their readers’ minds, but anyone working in film uses it to impart visual meaning. People working in graphic design or marketing have to learn a ton about not only popular symbols, but also color theory, since colors have such powerful implied meanings.

These meanings might change from culture to culture, so this is a pretty Western-centered list—if you’re from a culture where these colors have different meanings, you might see them used in different ways.


Green often communicates prosperity. It signals abundance and brings to mind the green of prosperous crops or bustling forests. It might also point to rebirth, as in spring, jealousy or greed, or money.


Red communicates passion or an intensity of feeling. Red is the color of blood, so it might evoke war, violence, or rage. It might also evoke powerful feelings of love, especially lust. It could also be used as a warning sign to herald upcoming danger. 

Think of Melisandre in Game of Thrones, for example, who acts as a prophet for the Lord of Light. The Lord of Light demands violent sacrifices in the form of burning people alive, and Melisandre seduces powerful men to bend them to the Lord of Light’s will. She has red hair, she dresses in red, and the Lord of Light’s banner is red—this is all intentional.


Black often signals death or the unknown. It might also be used to signal rebellion, strength, or authority—characters associated with black might be going against the status quo in some way or another.


White often signals life, rebirth, purity, or innocence. It also has strong medical associations and might be used to invoke a clinical, sterile environment—the blankness and starkness which white communicates can provide brightness, but also a lot of unease.


Blue reminds us of water, which makes us think of life, wisdom, freedom, or inspiration. If you’re into astrology, blue is meant to get across that ‘water sign’ aesthetic—things that are blue are meant to be intuitive, creative, and sensitive.


Brown reminds us of the earth. Brown might be associated with harvest, food, nourishment, and especially home and hearth. It’s a grounding color, so it also lends security, heart, and warmth wherever it shows up.

How to use symbolism

Now that you’ve got an idea of what symbols might look like out in the wild, let’s talk about how to apply them to your own work.

Watch for symbols

The first step is noticing which symbols are used, where they’re used, and how they’re used. This might sound like I’m assigning you a ton of research, but I’m really not—just pay attention to the colors, images, words, and phrases you see repeated in literature, shows, movies, and advertising.

You might start noticing that red is used a lot in stores to communicate urgency—buy this now—or that in a lot of mainstream media, characters associated with darker color palettes are often considered by the text to be morally corrupt (a direct result of our society’s colorism). This will definitely ruin your life a little bit, but it will also make you much more aware of what you’re bringing to your own work.

Use symbols intentionally for subversion

Once you understand how symbols are usually used, you can use them in new, interesting ways. A lot of cliches associated with imagery are also overused similes and metaphors—to say that something is “cold as ice” doesn’t do anything new for a reader, who has heard it before, so it kind of means nothing.

You want to reach for new associations and make comparisons that the reader hasn’t heard before. This is one of the ways you can work to create interesting, compelling artwork, and it starts with noticing these associations in real life for yourself.

Add symbolism in revision

Sometimes, a great idea for a story springs up around a metaphor, especially if you’re writing an allegory, which is pretty much all metaphor. In this case, you need to outline the terms of the metaphor up front and know what you’re doing as you go.

Otherwise, worry about symbolism in revision. This is the kind of thing that can really bog you down in your first draft, where your chief goal ought to be literally just finishing the manuscript. Once you’re done, go through and see what kinds of symbols reappear in your work. If you were intentionally using symbols in draft one, how did you do, and how will your revisions change these symbols?

Famous examples of symbolism

Here’s a few examples of symbolism that you’ve probably read before:

The green light in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The green light in The Great Gatsby symbolizes all of Jay Gatsby’s hopes and dreams—chiefly, it represents his desire for Daisy. Why green and not red? Gatsby’s drive for Daisy is inseparable from his drive for money, which he hopes will win her over.

The “A” in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The “A” in The Scarlet Letter means ‘adulterer,’ and it ostracizes Hester from the community. Throughout the novel, though, the ‘A’ changes its meaning—’aristocrat’ and ‘angel’ are also applicable.

Out, out damned spot from Macbeth by Shakespeare

Lady Macbeth tries to clean her hands in Macbeth during the “out, out, damned spot” monologue. This symbolizes her role in the violence to come—she can’t get the spot off her hands, just like she can’t rid herself of the bloodshed for which she is responsible. Try as she might, she can’t get the blood off her hands.

Sauron from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein
Sauron is a great example of how characters might be used as symbols within a story. Sauron is a dark wizard who aims to use the power of the Ring in his pursuit of world domination. He symbolizes the triumph of evil, and the entire plot of The Lord of the Rings grapples with this idea that the long, difficult journey and sacrifices of good people can save the world.

New call-to-action