The Importance Of Symbols In Stories

John Fraim discusses the role of symbology in storytelling.

The simple definition of a symbol is something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible. For example, a lion is a symbol for courage, and a flag a symbol of patriotism. Then there’s color symbology. Red symbolizes passion and anger while blue represents calmness and intuition.

in consideration of their effect on the psyche, Joseph Campbell in “A Symbol Without Meaning” proposed symbols are energy evoking and directing agents. The Indian scholar Heinrich Zimmer provides a broad definition of symbols noting that “Concepts and words are symbols, just as rituals, and images are; so too are the manners and customs of daily life. Through all of these a transcendent reality is mirrored.” Some even suggest symbols are beyond definition altogether.

Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung proposed an alternate definition of symbols distinguishing them from “signs.” In Jung’s view, a sign stands for something known, as a word stands for a referent. In contrast, Jung observed that symbols stand for unknown things that cannot be made clear or precise. As an example, he offered Christ as a symbol for the archetype symbol of self.

Even if a definition of symbol can be obtained, this definition can vary with different periods of time and cultures. Jung states this well in The Psychology of Transference (1946) noting: “Eternal truth needs a human language that varies with the spirit of the times. The primordial images undergo ceaseless transformation and yet remain ever the same, but only in a new form can they be understood anew. Always they require a new interpretation if, as each formulation becomes obsolete, they are not to lose their spellbinding power.” And too, symbols are used as a means to express specific ideologies, social structures and represent characteristics of specific cultures.

Thus, symbols carry different meaning depending upon one’s cultural background. The meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself. Rather, it is culturally learned. Whatever definition or meaning of symbols one arrives at, it is important to point out that they are much more than elements of an ancient, esoteric language but rather the basis for all human culture and knowledge. Consider the role of dragons in Chinese culture which symbolize power, strength and prosperity. In Norse mythology, dragons are brutal beasts which must be slain.

Rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke recognized this overwhelming power and importance of symbols on people’s thoughts and actions leading him to describe humans as “symbol-using animals.” In this way, people use symbols not only to make sense of the world around them, but also to identify and cooperate in society.

Returning to the basic definition of a symbol as something visible representing something invisible, it is not difficult to see why film has become a leading symbolic medium. Unlike non-linear types of art like painting, films possess the unique quality of showing symbols in action as they present a sequence of visible things representing invisible things. The major visible things a film has to work with are settings, objects, actions, characters and dialogue. The major invisible things these visible things refer to are the invisible aspects of internal character states such as moods, feelings and states.

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