The Changing Meaning of Symbols

The trailer for the new 007 movie, Spectre, just came out this week. As usual for Bond movies, it looks like a roller coaster ride through many exotic locations. In addition, Daniel Craig still cuts a dashing and convincing figure as the world’s best-known spy.

After viewing it, my husband, a huge aficionado of the decades-long series, said, “Blofeld isn’t bald this time.”

 Changes in language and symbols

The comment made me stop and think. Finally, I replied after the kernel of an idea began to grow in my mind. In the past, baldness was considered as either being ugly or perhaps diseased in some way. It added a visual to the impression of Blofeld being evil. Now, sexy bald men fill the cinema, mostly in hero rolls. With beautiful scalps belonging to a range of people from Taye Diggs and Jason Statham to Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, few people equate baldness with “diseased.”

So the meaning in this small character trait has changed over time. It’s not a surprise, but as writers, we need to be aware of changes in meanings. Language and symbology always evolve over time. Certainly profanity, used now with much higher frequency than in past decades, has lost a great deal of its powerful negative impact. Now many of the curse words are almost banal and irritating rather than shocking.

 What does black and white mean now?

Another example of changing meaning in symbols that comes to mind involves colors. The other day, I watched the 1964 movie, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, a delightful and dated old west/fantasy movie involving Tony Randall in seven different roles. The bad guy, Clint Stark, is the local moneyed cattleman, played well by Arthur O’Connell. In the movie, he shows up in a black cowboy hat. Almost all the other characters own brown, gray, or white hats. Yet at the end, (Spoiler alert!), when Stark goes through a change of heart and becomes Mr. Nice-Guy, he shows up in an off-white hat. Clearly the movie goes along with the concept of black=evil and white=good.

Now think about a number of modern movies. Cowboys & Aliens has just about everyone in a dark hat (brown or black) even though the aliens are the true bad guys. In the Matrix movies, when the hero, Neo, accepts his role as savior, he shows up in an almost priestly looking black outfit. Therefore, in terms of symbology, black has clearly traded its villainy aspects for a sense of mystery or even sexiness. However, part of this transformation may be because audiences (for cinema and books) are more sophisticated, outgrowing simple ideology of white=good, black=bad.

Daily symbols and powerful meanings

Yet visual clues in a text can give a scene or a character a much more intensive impact.

A good example of this is the flag known commonly as the Confederate Flag (actually a misnomer). I won’t go into the debate about its use now but think of what ideas it evokes when used to set the scene in certain movies. With just a glance, this flag provides a variety of impressions, including but not limited to the South (old and recent), white supremacy, slavery, rednecks, the Civil War, and danger (particularly when associated with dramatic moments and men wearing pointy-headed sheets). Similarly, the American flag engenders profound feelings such as strong patriotism, national honor, pride, and a sense of safety. Its deep impact is why so many politicians use a flag as part of their visual presence when giving speeches. The flag itself acts as a small mind control factor. It makes the audience transfer that same pride and national honor from the flag onto the speaker.

Symbolism strongly intertwines with the society that it comes from. A young Japanese man, who was visiting the U.S., asked me. “What’s with all the flags flying everywhere?” meaning the Stars and Stripes. I explained about it being a symbol of national pride, then asked, “Don’t the Japanese show their flag a lot?” It turns out they don’t. I’m not saying that the Japanese are not proud of their country. I know for a fact they are. But their national pride comes out in other symbols.

 What does this have to do with writing?

Words have power. Specific words, when used correctly, make a tremendous impact to the reader. To add depth to your descriptions without heaping on a lot of excess verbage, add specific descriptive words to your text. Build upon the hidden definitions that affect the reader even on a near subliminal level. For instance, making a young girl a ballerina over a tap dancer brings on multiple shades of implications about her character, social/economic level, physical looks, and agility. In describing the sun setting against a mountain backdrop, the author can use the terms “lemon yellow streaks fading to bright orange” to imply beauty in color change or “yellow giving way to blood red and finally blackness across the land” to infer a depressed disposition in the character. A great author wields the power of words with agility, both creating implications to build upon or to knock down for a sense of conflict.

Therefore, use symbols and power words in your text to create a much stronger, overall impression for the reader. It can elevate your manuscript from being merely good to truly excellent.

As ever, happy writing!

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