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Symbols: A Vital Worldbuilding Tool

A few days before writing this post, an old acquaintance reached out to me by text to wish me a happy new year. I texted her back, asking how her year has been so far. She replied with a poop emoticon. And I understood immediately. My acquaintance was able to answer my question with sentiment and a bit of humor with a tiny image she prepared with only a few taps on her touch screen. And that elaborate communication took less than a second to register in my brain.

That is how symbols work.

Ring of Three Wishes by MarkWintersEmoticons are twenty-first century symbols that reflect our current society and norms. But humans have been using symbols all throughout history. From a ring on the third finger of the left hand to the chevrons on a soldier’s sleeve, symbols are everywhere, communicating all kinds of information by their mere presence. Symbols may appear to be of little consequence, but when creating a world, they are a powerful tool. More than anything else, using symbols properly can give a world a certain depth where the beliefs, values, and general attitude of a culture can be easily portrayed.

Symbols are especially useful for representing intangible concepts, since symbols usually reflect messages that are complex. We come across symbols every day. Countries have national animals, flowers, and mottos. Families have coat of arms. Companies and businesses have logos and mission statements. Be aware of the value of symbolism in worldbuilding.

Now as far as writing is concerned, I am not trying to refer to symbolism in the literary sense. That subject is slightly different and can be the basis for an entirely new blog post. However, much in the same way that a writer uses some kind of object in order to include additional meanings to his or her story, symbols are a way to insert that ‘1000 word picture’ into a world. If symbols are developed correctly, a simple image or object will flesh out a setting or a scene like nothing else.

D&F by freemachineA symbol can raise tension. For example, two drunk young men begin to harass a quiet old man at a pub, then one of them sees a small red spider inked behind the man’s ear and realizes that the man is a member of the world’s most terrorizing assassin’s league. A symbol can bring about a sense of despair, such as a fleet of ships coasting into a town’s bay, flying the flag of a neighboring country in a sideways position. Flying a flag sideways is a signal that they intend to invade, which means that the townsfolk are in big trouble. It can also bring about a turning point to a bleak situation. A lost young mother carrying her dying child is desperately seeking help. Lost in a strange city, she spots a small house with a rabbit etched on the door. The rabbit is the totem animal of physicians and herbalists. The mother has just found a healer’s home.

Symbols are more than just identifiers. In fact, a true symbol is more a representation of a concept rather than a distinguishing mark. In other words, symbols are not signs. Also, symbols are not exclusively visual. There can be symbolism in just about anything. Many gestures have historical meaning behind them. A simple salute can be a tribute to a past event. A phrase that is uttered during certain situations might have a sacred origin that is all but forgotten in current times. Superstitious behaviors are usually old symbolic customs.

Here are three examples of symbolic behaviors and gestures:

Spilt Salt by level67Tossing salt over your shoulder for good luck. 
This is a superstitious custom, but the act in itself is symbolic of historical values and norms. Long ago, salt was valuable, even used as currency in some places, and to spill some would be wasteful, and possibly a loss of wealth. The bad form of spilling salt eventually turned into plain bad luck, and the gesture of tossing a bit of the spilled salt was a way to ward off misfortune. The custom was refined to specify that the salt should be tossed over the left shoulder, to chase off the devil.

The sign of the cross.
This gesture is an extremely important Catholic symbol. Making the sign of the cross is meaningful on many levels, and the particular significances are too much to go into depth in this post. Non-Catholic Christians also use it, but not all denominations consider it appropriate. Catholics make the sign to profess their belief in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. It is used to accept a sacrament, ward off evil, and to begin a prayer. The sign is made with the right hand touching first the forehead, the chest, the left shoulder, and finally the right shoulder. Some even say “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” out loud while doing the sign.

Middle Finger by Nick VeaseyGiving someone the finger.
And how can I not mention everyone’s favorite symbolic gesture? You know, the one with the finger that English longbowmen used to pull back their bowstrings? According to legend (this account is not historically true, but it makes for a great story) the origin for flipping the bird goes back to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The French, confident of victory, threatened to cut off the middle fingers of the English archers to prevent them from shooting arrows in the future. The English pulled a surprising upset by winning the battle, and the longbowmen waved the fingers in question at the French in a defiant taunt. Although only a legendary tale, this is more likely to have been the origin of the two-fingered salute that is considered offensive in England and should never be used to order a couple of pints at any pub in the UK.

When developing symbols for a world, please keep in mind the following:

Symbols do not all have to be universal.
Having some symbols that are specific to a country, race or village is more believable than all symbols being universal. In fact, universal symbols should be limited to a select few. And conflicting symbols between countries are a good backdrop for many humorous or tension-filled scenarios.

Freedom by irenesuchockiHave an aspect of the symbol relatable to what it is representing.
For example, the fact that birds can fly brings to mind a sense of freedom and great vision. The color blue is attributable to protection, freedom, and water. The rose is an iconic flower. Attributes are based on its color, but purity and beauty are its main associations. These immediate attributes connect the object to the concept it is meant to symbolize.

Symbols can be completely made-up.
It is easy to adopt existing objects as symbols, since people tend to attach attributes to animals, plants, colors, even planets. However, a contrived symbol will be just as effective.

Symbols are not signs.
I mentioned this earlier, but I do not see any reason not to use a symbol as a sign. But realize the difference between the two. Signs are designed to convey a single meaning, while symbols are representations of more in-depth concepts. Think of a stop sign. The stop sign used in most countries is red and octagonal, with the country’s word for STOP in white. The sign itself has a single purpose, to instruct cars to come to a stop before proceeding ahead. However, the color red has a deeper meaning. Red is associated with danger and caution. People are trained to identify many red signs and symbols as warnings. The color red is a symbol, where the stop sign is just a sign.

Yin Yang by moni158Finally, do not make symbols more complicated than they need to be. While it is great to have a backstory for many aspects of a world, it is not necessary for symbols. Other than a description of what the symbol stands for and how it is viewed by the world, there is not much that needs to be outlined for a symbol. They exist, and they have their place in the minds and hearts of your characters. Symbols help drive a character’s behavior and reaction. It shapes the current times of your world, and that is the only role they need to play.

Title image by moni158.



  1. Symbols should take a special place in fantasy literature in particular.

    Owing to the fact that most fantasy settings are set in a medieval-type tech level, we would expect to find low rates of literacy. And when literacy rates are low, symbolism would be used to convey complex concepts as you describe in this post.

    I think we modern readers take symbolism for granted. Haha.

  2. […] 9. Fan­tasy Fac­tion — Sym­bols: A vital world­bu­il­ding tool. Czyli patrz tytu?. […]

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