Character arcs are bothersome.

Let me clarify: creating character arcs is bothersome. Character arcs in and of themselves are terrific; they aid with theme, character development, and the execution of vital plot points. Yet, they require effort to pull off correctly. Writers risk dumping all the character’s growth on readers like a pile of bricks, rendering the change heavy handed and ineffective.

This is where symbolism dashes to the writer’s rescue. Symbolism occurs when an object, person, or place embodies or alludes to an idea or belief. When it is incorporated into character arcs, the changes necessary to the arc are shown, not with words, but with objects. By studying how symbolism is utilized in other stories, we can discover how symbolism enhances character arcs and apply it to our own tales.

Symbolism and Abstract Ideas

Symbolism might seem complicated at first, but once you learn about it, it’s not so scary after all. In one sense, symbolism is like associating memories with objects, people, or places. When your character experiences or believes something, the people, places, and objects around him becomes a landmark to that sentiment or occurrence. Afterwards that object is a monument that will remind your character what happened, just like you might recall a street your best friend lived on or ice cream you ate while celebrating a special event. That is symbolism.

An object can also be connected to an idea by its use, even though nothing exciting or memorable surrounds it. Anything done to the object thereafter affects the idea attached to it and vice versa. Is the idea discarded by your character? Then the object should be cast away or destroyed. Is it accepted? The object should be hoarded or guarded.

For example, Steve Roger’s shield in Avengers: Age of Ultron represents the protection the Avengers offer the world because of its ownership to the Avenger’s leader and its traditional use as a shield. When Tony Stark sees Roger’s shield broken in a vision, the viewer is deeply shaken. Why? Because the shattering of the supposedly indestructible shield means the Avengers, and the world, have fallen.

The fall of the Avengers was the message of the vision, and the broken shield drove it home. The simple object captured the viewer’s attention in a way words never could. Imagine if we instead had witnessed a villain standing above the fallen Avengers, threatening Tony with an evil monologue. The vision’s power would have diminished significantly. Instead, the message was strengthened by a symbol that filled the viewer with horror.

Symbolism and the Building Blocks of Character Arcs                        

The two main elements of a character arc—the lie forming the Negative Experiment in Living and the truth forming the Positive Experiment in Living—can be enforced with symbolism. When objects are linked to these elements, they can be exchanged, relinquished, or destroyed depending on how the character arc ends.

In the movie Frozen, Elsa believes the lie that she must conceal her true self. This idea is represented by the gloves her parents advised her to wear. During the entrance to the second act, Elsa casts her remaining glove to the wind, signifying her disposal of that Negative Experiment in Living. Though the removal of the glove was small and seemingly inconsequential, it indicated a monumental change in Elsa.

Symbolism is also woven heavily throughout the animated film Brave, which follows Scottish princess Merida as she struggles to understand her mother’s actions. Merida eventually reconciles their relationship, but not before stirring up plenty of trouble. In the heat of an argument, Merida slashes a family tapestry her mother had sown, cutting her mother out of the picture and illustrating their separation quite literally. Merida’s maturation later comes to a head in the climax, when she repairs the tapestry and apologizes to her mother. The mended tapestry provides a before and after picture of Merida’s character arc without uttering a single word.

Tips for Incorporating Symbolism

Integrating symbolism in character arcs is tricky, but below are a few ways to make sure your symbols help instead of harm your story:

1. The symbols you give your character should be personally meaningful. Otherwise the audience won’t care.

Usually these symbols aren’t flashy items such as magic pendants or large swords that connect with readers. The pen your character wrote her first book with or a tree she climbed as a kid isn’t important to the outside world, but it means the world to your character. If readers know this, they will be able to relate.

2. Avoid clichéd objects. Don’t settle for the first symbol that comes to mind. The more unique the symbol, the better it will be remembered. Mundane objects aren’t generally used as symbols and are therefore full of untapped potential. Countless memories are often attached to everyday items like garden spades, teddy bears, and plates.

If you must use an object that’s been featured many times before, consider how you can set it apart. A symbol isn’t completely defined by its appearance. Its origin and purpose can be unique, making the object interesting and unfamiliar to readers. Is your symbol a legendary sword? Perhaps it was forged by a giant who used it as a butter knife before it was stolen by the protagonist.

3. Don’t blatantly explain what your symbol means. Instead, portray it through your character’s treatment of it. Perhaps he is fiercely protective of the tabby cat he carries with him because it is all that escaped his childhood home. Convey this through his reaction to the animal. When he holds the creature, describe him staring off into the distance, remembering his home. Display his unwillingness to abandon it under any circumstances. Leave the right clues for readers and they’ll be able to figure it out from there.

Linking symbolism to character arcs solidifies character change and theme, helping create a seamless story that moves readers beyond words. They’ll remember your novel long after they finished it. Though symbolism is subtle and challenging to grasp, its effectiveness makes it worthwhile.