On the monomythical hero’s journey, the hero is usually “marked” in some way– often with a symbol like a scar or with a special accessory, like a ring. (“Branding” is also an element of Russian folklore).
This mark or brand becomes a symbol throughout the novel.
Symbols can mark groups of characters too, like the faction symbols in Divergent or the house sigils in A Game of Thrones.
In Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry is marked by a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is marked by a mockingjay pin.
Let’s look at five ways you can take charge of your symbolism and make your novel feel more powerful.
1. The hero is marked with a symbol because he is the chosen one.
The symbol follows the hero everywhere he goes, and it becomes part of his identity.
- For Harry Potter, the scar on his forehead represents the moment that Voldemort chose Harry as the one to attack (later we learn because of a prophecy). “Under a tuft of jet-black hair over his forehead they could see a curiously shaped cut, like a bolt of lightning. . . . ‘He’ll have that scar forever.’” (HP Ch.1).
- Katniss wears the golden mockingjay pin as her district token. She normally wouldn’t be able to afford this, but it was gifted to her because she was chosen as tribute (or rather, because she volunteered). “It’s as if someone fashioned a small golden bird and then attached a ring around it. . . . I suddenly recognize it. A mockingjay.” (HG Ch.3).
2. Other characters recognize the hero because of the symbol.
The symbol helps make the hero instantly recognizable, and in some ways is part of the hero’s fame.
- When Harry meets the Weasleys when boarding the Hogwarts train, the twins identify Harry because of his scar. Ginny asks Fred how he knows it is Harry Potter, and Fred responds: “Asked him. Saw his scar. It’s really there — like lightning.” (HP Ch.6).
- When Katniss starts to form an alliance with Rue, she learns that her pin is what made Rue recognize her as trustworthy. “I like to see it on you. That’s how I decided I could trust you.” (HG Ch.16).
3. The symbol gives the hero warnings of danger.
The symbol has agency in the story– it’s more than a prop!
- Harry’s scar burns when he is near Quirrell/Voldemort. “— and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.” (HP Ch.7).
- Katniss picks up warnings from the real mockingjays by the disruptions in their song. They give a warning whistle when a Capitol hovercraft is about to appear or when they are scared. “The mockingjays’ voices rise up in a shrieking cry of alarm.” (HG Ch.24).
4. The symbol represents a lost parent’s protection.
The symbol is extra special to the hero because it reminds her of her lost parent’s love.
- Dumbledore explains to Harry that his mother’s protection is in his skin. This is why he only received a scar from Voldemort’s attack (instead of instant death!) “He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” (HP Ch.17).
- Katniss explains that she and her father would sing with the mockingjays when they went hunting, but that she hasn’t done it since he died. “Still, there’s something comforting about the little bird. It’s like having a piece of my father with me, protecting me. I fasten the pin onto my shirt . . .” (HG Ch.3).
5. The symbol represents survival as an act of rebellion.
The hero’s symbol stands for the hero himself– someone who was supposed to die, but fought back and won against the odds.
- Very few wizards were brave enough to rebel against Voldemort, and even fewer were able to withstand an attack by him. Somehow, Harry did both as a baby. “’Well — I was lucky once, wasn’t I?’ said Harry, pointing at his scar. ‘I might get lucky again.’” (HP Ch.16).
- The Capitol meant to use their genetically modified jabber jays against the rebels, but it backfired when the birds mated with mockingbirds and survived as mockingjays. “They’re funny birds and something of a slap in the face to the Capitol. . . . the birds were abandoned to die off in the wild. Only they didn’t die off.” (HG Ch.3).
Why it works
Symbolism can be very powerful, both inside and outside of your story.
Inside the pages, the recurring symbol helps unify multiple story lines. This helps give the feeling that the author has woven together something masterful.
Outside the pages, a symbol gives your fans (and future #fandom) a visual to rally around and perhaps makes the book easier to market.
I was thinking about how Twilight in a lot of ways does not have the lasting fan base that Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have. And what is Twilight‘s symbol? An apple? A chess piece? A lion and a lamb?
Stephenie Meyer addressed the question, “what’s with the apple?” on her FAQ page and said it symbolized choice, as in choosing whether or not to take a bite of the forbidden fruit.
That makes sense, but on the other hand, can you imagine readers needing an explanation of Harry’s scar or Katniss’s mockingjay? Not really– it’s already clear from the book because the symbols are part of the story.
Speaking of which, let’s add a “chosen one” symbolism card to Chapters 1, 3, 5, 12, and 16 of our master outline.
By including a clearly identifiable symbol in the story– and conversely, letting the reader have a tangible item that exists outside the story– you can take charge of your novel’s symbolism and write a more powerful novel.