Symbols enrich your story’s meaning by connecting what’s literally happening with overarching themes. Does your story include symbols? And what symbols should you include? In this article, we’ll look at symbolic archetypes that will help you create powerful symbols in your story.
The Hero’s Journey is a beloved storytelling style. One of the reasons why audiences love it so much is that it uses familiar storytelling elements that are familiar and creating a feeling of connectedness between the audience and storyteller.
This begins with character. And while stories are essentially about great characters, a powerful Hero’s Journey also includes a number of other objects or symbolic elements.
These are called Symbolic Archetypes.
If character archetypes are the steak, symbolic archetypes are the delicious seasonings that bring out the meat’s flavor (sorry to all you vegans/vegetarians out there!).
These storytelling elements are often subtle details that the reader may not consciously notice, but work to great effect in telling your heroic story in a way that establishes a deep and meaningful theme.
Here’s how to weave them into your story and create a wonderful reading experience for your audience.
Symbolic Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey
Is this post going to be another boring lesson from high school English class?
Of course not! We’re about to discover how to put symbols in your story, often hiding them in plain sight.
Here’s what a symbolic archetype is and how it works.
Symbolic Archetype Definition
A symbolic archetype is an object, location, or image in a story that contains more than one functional meaning. It has both a physical meaning in the story world and a thematic meaning for the reader to interpret.
First, the object, location, or image “is what it is” in the world of the story. A dungeon is a dungeon. A river is a river. And a sunrise is a sunrise.
But second, the object, location, or image also contains an additional function or meaning connected to eternal themes of human existence. A dungeon represents captivity. A river represents a journey or growth. And a sunrise represents rebirth or a new opportunity.
The Power of Symbols
Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” theory, also known as the Hero’s Journey, is the idea that all characters, situations, and symbols in any story (regardless of culture, genre, or time period) are incredibly similar. This means that stories are the product of human psychology, not just a specific culture or generation.
Symbols form the physical fabric of meaning in society. We use them all the time, often without thinking of their meaning.
Companies use them by creating logos, and then fill our world with that symbol everywhere they can. Religions use them, and followers wear those symbols as jewelry and tattoos. We even notice them when certain situations seem ironic, as when a red light stops us in our tracks and we are forced to wait when we’d much rather hurry onward.
In stories, symbols do the same thing. Symbolic Archetypes connect the physical world your characters live in to the nonphysical world of Theme.
That being said, it’s important to make a distinction before going forward: Not all symbols are the same.
A better way to say this is that while archetypes are universal, their implementation and interpretation is not. Here’s an example.
In the West, black clothing is symbolic of death and mourning. In many other cultures, however, the color for death and mourning is white. If you’re from Europe or America, it may seem absurd to wear white clothing to a funeral! Yet this is exactly what one would find in many other cultures and religious sects.
However, the colors “black” and “white” are not archetypes. They are simply colors.
What is universal and archetypal is the association of color with grief. It is a symbol (an image) that functions as it is, clothing, and as a thematic message, grief.
How you choose to implement this in your story is up to you. What if characters in your world used a different color for grief? This is one way to consider innovating an established symbolic archetype.
So as you consider texturing your world with Symbolic Archetypes, remember that the archetype is a way that humans connect the physical world to the nonphysical, not necessarily the specific way that connection is made (in various cultures, perhaps).
The 5 Essential Symbolic Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey
What are the most common symbolic bridges in the Heroic Journey stories that readers love? Let’s discuss five essential symbols you can use to add meaning to your story and help establish its themes!
1. Light vs. Darkness
The dichotomy between light and darkness is a straightforward way to show contrast. Usually, light means purity, truth, hope, or holiness. Darkness and shadows, to the contrary, represents guilt, deceit, despair, and being cursed or damned.
This dichotomy works as an archetype for a number of reasons. Humans tend to fear the dark and all the unknowns within it. But when light is thrown upon that darkness, revealing all to see, healing can occur and hope is restored. To see this in effect, simply turn on the bedroom lights for a child who thinks there’s a monster in his closet.
How to Use It
In your story, consider how this dichotomy can occur. Remember that the colors, or shades of light, don’t have to mean what I’ve written above. What’s primary is the functional fear of darkness that lives inside your reader, and the peace that comes when light shines into that darkness.
2. The Magic Weapon
Heroes are heroic because of their ultimately selfless actions.
However, they may exhibit physical heroism through mastery of some kind of weapon, known in Campbell’s theory as the Magic Weapon. Just look at Marvel’s superheroes to see this in action.
Iron Man’s weapon is his suit. Captain America’s weapon is his shield. Black Widow doesn’t have a tool as her weapon; her weapon is her body and the martial arts skills she possesses (though she shoots a lot of guns in the Marvel movies, too).
How to Use It
If you’re going to give your hero a Magic Weapon, then you do consign yourself to at least one “obligatory” scene: the loss of the Weapon.
Since it is ultimately the hero’s heart, not his weapons, that make him a hero, there is almost always a scene where the hero’s weapon is lost, damaged, or stolen, rendering the hero vulnerable for a period of time. It is in this time of testing that his true nature is revealed and he becomes “worthy,” at least in the narrative, of wielding the weapon once more.
3. The Underworld
This archetype is so common that it was spoofed in the Austin Powers films: the villainous underground “lair.”
This archetype is derived from classic epics like Beowulf and Dante’s Inferno, where the hero must descend into the depths of a cave or underwater cavern to slay a beast. In medieval tales, it evolved into dungeons, tunnels, crypts, and more.
But the reason why your story needs a symbolic Underground is because as humans, we know what “going underground” really means: Dying. As is spoken at many a funeral, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” In our guts, we know that the Underground or Underworld is a place of death, darkness, and evil.
That’s why so many climactic scenes take place underground. It could be a confrontation with the Shadow or Devil Figure character(s); it could be an escape scene, where the hero(es) must pass through a tunnel or flooded area.
One of the earliest examples of this step is the famous “Red Sea” scene in the story of the Hebrew Exodus. Fleeing from Pharaoh’s army, the Hebrews pass through the parted Red Sea, a place where no human should logically be. At any moment, God could release the waters and every single man, woman, and child would be destroyed.
But instead, the Hebrews pass through unscathed, a symbolic resurrection and baptismal washing from their previous slavery status.
Indeed, it is not uncommon for the Resurrection step of the Hero’s Journey to take place in a symbolic Underground or Underworld!
How to Use It
There are a lot of ways to craft an Underground or Underworld: cellars and basements, caves, tunnels, ditches, underwater areas, and so on. Regardless of your story’s genre, there are ways to craft your darkest and highest-stakes scenes in a place that is underground or near to it.
How can you put your characters in a position of symbolic death while they wrestle with the death of their hopes and dreams as well?
4. The Castle
Just as every human instinctually associates the Underground with death, humans connect castles and fortresses with power. There is something overwhelming about a massive structure of reinforced stone, wood, and steel. Even visiting a crumbling castle from the ancient past, one can easily imagine its ramparts manned by innumerable soldiers and archers ready to repel any attack.
This is why your Shadow character needs a Castle.
Of course it doesn’t need to be an actual European castle. Remember, symbols are physical representations of nonphysical truths. And the nonphysical truth of a castle is power.
How to Use It
To fashion your Shadow’s Castle, consider: What is the type of power that the Shadow wields in your story?
Is it political power? Then perhaps the Shadow should be hidden behind the facade of a massive government building, like the Kremlin.
Perhaps the power in your story is military. In that case, the Shadow should lurk inside the fenced, heavily patrolled walls of a base or compound.
If the power in your world is financial, put your Shadow in a mansion or skyscraper.
Even a film like Elf uses this archetype when Buddy first attempts to connect with his father, Walter Hobbs, who works in the upper floors of the Empire State Building. Buddy doesn’t realize that his father is the Shadow of the story, a man who hides in his office, surrounded by secretaries and security staff, doing little-to-nothing as he produces crappy children’s books.
Yet Buddy, through his kindness and perseverance, is able to penetrate the defenses of Walter’s Castle (for awhile) until the story no longer needs the archetype anymore.
So consider what goal your hero is pursuing, and what the Shadow would logically do to thwart the hero. What kind of fortress would the Shadow erect for himself in the world of your story? What defenses would the Shadow put in place?
Remember, the Castle is symbolic, evoking the idea of great defensive power gathered into one impressive place. How would your Shadow bring this about in his or her world?
5. The Unhealable Wound
Injuries are a part of life. Thankfully most of them heal within a few days or weeks.
However, sometimes life brings an injury that never fully heals. The victim is forever scarred, perhaps unable to walk without a limp, use an arm, or live a functional life like before.
While these types of injuries are physical and not symbolic, the emotions that come from them are. With an Unhealable Wound comes feelings of brokenness, mortality, and an inability to let go of the past. That’s why this archetype is a subtle-yet-powerful element to include in your story.
As an example, think of Frodo Baggins’s wounding by the Witch King of the Nazgul. Trapped on the hilltop at Weathertop, Frodo puts on the Ring of Power to avoid being seen. Instead, however, he sees his attackers in the spiritual realm and one of them stabs Frodo in the shoulder with a Morgul blade.
While he is healed of the wound’s immediate danger by the elves, it continues to hobble and hurt him throughout his life. Even at the end of the lengthy novel, Frodo complains of its pain as he nears the time when he will have to choose between staying in the Shire or taking the boats to the Undying Lands (which is, conversely, a symbolic death).
How to Use It
Consider a way that your Hero can be injured or wounded, even nonphysically, in pursuit of their goal.
How can this wound hamper the Hero throughout the journey? How can learning to live with it be a part of the Hero pursuing their internal needs, rather than just external wants? Also, how can this process help the Hero become more selfless (and therefore heroic) in a way that benefits the entire community of your story?
4 Additional Symbolic Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey
There are a lot of ways to add meaning and depth to your story using other sources of symbolism. An internet search for “symbolic archetypes” will take you to a long list of Western-centric colors, shapes, and numbers, along with their “meanings.”
But it’s important to remember that these are often culturally specific and only reflect how one particular group of people link the physical world to nonphysical meaning. How will you innovate the following four tropes for your story?
1. The Significance of Color
Physical colors bear nonphysical meanings in various cultures. In the United States, for example, red is often associated with love and passion; however, it is also associated with violence, blood, and death. Green, on the other hand, represents a wide variety of things: nature, money, and greed, to name a few.
You are welcome to incorporate these interpretations into your own story. But be aware that all readers might not make the same symbolic connections that you intend.
That is why I encourage you to forge ahead with your own use of symbolic color.
J. R. R. Tolkien did this, making the color “white” differ based on regions in his world of Middle Earth. In Gondor, “the White Tower” was a symbol of hope against the black smoke and ash of Mordor. But in Rohan, “the white hand of Saruman” was a symbol of terror and evil, as a “white wizard” attempted to eradicate an entire race of men.
2. The Significance of Numbers
Numerical symbology is heavily dependent on cultural context. In Judeo-Christian societies, the numbers three, seven, and twelve are very symbolic and used in countless ways. This is connected to the Trinity, the holiness of the number seven, and the twelve disciplines and months of the year.
But in other cultures, especially ones that don’t embrace Judeo-Christian heritage, the number four is deeply symbolic. It is tied to cycles of nature: the four cardinal directions, the four seasons, and the four classic elements of earth, wind, fire, and water.
So what numbers will be significant in your world? What mythology or history will they be based on?
If your genre is more realistic, like a contemporary romance, then you’d be wise to adopt the numeric symbolism of your story’s setting or your character’s backgrounds. This could be especially interesting in a story about two people from vastly different cultures falling in love.
But if your genre is more fantastical and open to creative world-building, feel free to conjure a few symbolic numbers. Just make sure they are tied to mythology or history that is relevant to your hero’s pursuit of the goal.
3. The Significance of Shapes
Shapes are like the bones of many symbols. For more on this, see anything by Dan Brown about the Catholic Church!
Essentially there are four shapes used to establish physical symbols: circle, triangle, square, and diamond. Animators often use these simple shapes as the building blocks for characters. Pixar’s Inside Out features five main characters each based on a simple shape.
Another example of this symbology put to use is that of the “deathly hallows” in J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter novel. Even today you can see this symbol on people’s car windows and flesh.
A guiding principle for this is to limit the number of shapes you use in your story’s symbolic world. Don’t overwhelm your reader with ten symbols when one will capture the ideas you’re presenting.
Think of it this way: Use the symbol to establish or illustrate your story’s primary theme. Make it simple, memorable, and easy to draw (even in one’s mind). One can see this principle embodied perfectly in Rowling’s “deathly hallows.”
4. The Significance of Seasons
Finally, human beings who live in any latitude with seasons have gut-level feelings that associate seaons with nonphysical realities of life (sorry, Floridians).
In a nutshell, Spring symbolizes birth (hence the festival of eggs and rabbits that we now connect with the resurrection of Jesus, called “Easter”). Summer represents the vibrancy of youth and adulthood.
Autumn symbolizes advanced age and the slow decay of the body (consider how the image of slowly-falling discolored leaves makes you feel); and Winter undeniably represents death, as all life ceases to thrive and succumbs to a long, quiet sleep under the cruel, cold snow.
As with color and numbers, you are free to co-opt these commonly understood associations of the seasons. However, these associations are specifically Western and may not reflect the values of your story’s culture, or the culture you are creating for your story.
What does each season mean? Why? How can the passage of time and seasons provide a meaningful backdrop for your Hero’s transformation into a truly sacrificial source of hope and redemption?
Bring Meaning With Symbols
The great news about Symbolic Archetypes is that you don’t need a ton of them to succeed. You also don’t need to use them throughout the entire story. If it serves your story well, you may use an archetype in only a small number of scenes, as Elf does with the Empire State Building (the Castle).
So how will you build the bridge of meaning between your story’s physical world and the nonphysical feelings, sensations, and beliefs we all experience?
Because this is what separates “good” stories from truly great stories. The truly great stories that we love and talk about are layered with symbolic meaning that seem to say something important about how we live our lives.
And these great stories do so with carefully crafted subtlety. Finding the balance between a story with no meaning and a story that bashes readers over the head with preachy symbolism is a tough, time-tested challenge. You will need to rewrite scenes and chapters several times to find the right balance.
You’ll also need to share your drafts with your writing community, asking its members to let you know if the symbolism and themes were clear without being too heavy-handed.
After some focused and insightful feedback comes your way, you’ll be able to sharpen your symbols like chef’s knives so they make a precise impact on your story, and its readers, all the way through.
What symbols can you think of from stories you love? Let us know in the comments.
Think about the Hero’s Journey story you’ve been planning throughout this series. (Want to start from the beginning? Kick off your own Hero’s Journey here.)
How might these Symbolic Archetypes appear in your story? Take fifteen minutes to journal about one of the five Essential Symbolic Archetypes, brainstorming ways to craft a physical object, location, or image that could have nonphysical meaning.
Share your writing in the comments, and then leave some constructive feedback on another writer’s post!
You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.