February 23, 2018, 12:37:35 PM

Author Topic: Working with symbolic imagery  (Read 227 times)

Offline Yora

Working with symbolic imagery
« on: February 11, 2018, 08:55:48 AM »
I've recently been playing the Dark Souls games a lot, which are quite well known for their intricate worldbuilding. And one thing that keeps striking me as something that looks really interesting for writing is the constant and consistent use of repeated symbolic motives. Almost all of the magic and supernatural stuff in that world either takes the form of, or is described in terms of fire, ash, and bone. It's a world in which fire is the original creative source, but as every fire it eventually burns out leaving only ash. And without the creative energy of fire, people are starting to become undead, which is where the bone imagery comes from.
These images of fire, ash, and bone are absolutely eveywhere. Whenever someone talks about the power of the gods or the human spirit, it's done in fire based terminology. And there are lots of magic bones, ash, and coals that retain some of the divine energy, as well as plenty of magic spells described as projecting the power of the sun. It may seem a bit overdone, but I think it actually works really well. (They also made another game called Bloodborne which has everything themed around blood, eyes, and werewolves.)

I don't remember such an approach being used in other works of fantasy to such an extend. Fire and ice occasionally as a dualism, but without the whole theological and cosmological framework that covers the setting as a whole.

I've been thinking about how I could try something similar with the world I am working on, and two visual themes came almost immediately to my mind. Trees and water. And on second thought, there are so many things you can talk about in tree metaphors. The first thing that I think of as a gardener is structure. A solid trunk that connects roots that are firmly anchored in the ground with a wide spanning canopy that consists of endlesly differentiating branches. Trees also take nutrients and water from the earth and sunlight from the sky, to create life between the two. Wood is also a material that is both solid and flexible and can easily be shaped, and before steel and plastic was the main material from which people made almost anything. Trees also have fruits, which in Europe have been very essential to supplement a grain based diet. And there is so much symbolism you can tap into with the image of fruits.
And it also helps that I base the world somewhat on northeast Europe, where trees have long had a very central role in religious imagery and symbolism. I also like architecture for fantastic places that is very vertical, like towers and very high colums. These can easily be described in tree based terminology.

Water is also quite cool. I used to think of it as the most boring of the elements, but I've come to regard it as the most interesting in it's symbolism. Water is the source of life, and also a symbol of purity, with it being the primary cleaning agent throughout all history. Yet at the same time, water can be incredibly powerful and also destructive. Storms feel so much worse when it also rains, and you have of course all the flooding. Water can swallow up land in very short time and sweep things away to be gone forever. In northern European culture, water is also a gateway to the underworld. Swampy ponds with deep black bottoms are passages to the world of spirits, and the surface of the ocean sits on top of an endless, cold, black abyss that can swallow everything and make it literally vanish from the face of the earth forever. And in a setting focused on costal areas and ship travel, this is something that people are dealing with on an everyday basis.

I also really like fog. It is obscuring and also confusing, but is also associated with illusions and in extension also premonitions. And in a setting based on cold coastal swamplands it's something you can add to scenes all the time and it's something that people would believably make regular use of in metaphors.

I think this is a really cool approach to come up with a religious terminology that people in a setting are using to make sense of the world around them, and it can also be used to add a consistent feel to natural magic instead of scientific human created systems of categorization.
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Offline Skip

Re: Working with symbolic imagery
« Reply #1 on: February 11, 2018, 04:16:41 PM »
Definitely follow up on that, Yora. I agree that letting such symbolism inform a world can provide a consistency that lends realism. I've seen authors use it, too, as a basis for uttering oaths. It can be overdone, but particularly if you have multiple religions, giving each a "theme" can help distinguish each from the other.

A couple other thoughts occur. Once you have a "world symbolism" you can watch for "counter-symbols" as it were. If trees and water inform the world, then perhaps metal and fire can symbolism destruction or disruption or just plain alien-ness.  Similarly, you can tap into an opposing, or a complementary, symbol for a specific story within that world.

In any case, it's plenty to work with!
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Offline Bradley Darewood

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Re: Working with symbolic imagery
« Reply #2 on: February 11, 2018, 11:51:48 PM »
I really like this!!!

Offline Yora

Re: Working with symbolic imagery
« Reply #3 on: February 13, 2018, 09:06:25 PM »
A couple other thoughts occur. Once you have a "world symbolism" you can watch for "counter-symbols" as it were. If trees and water inform the world, then perhaps metal and fire can symbolism destruction or disruption or just plain alien-ness.
Fire and iron are the first counterparts that immediately come to mind. But bad industry against good nature is a binary pair that's been used a lot of time. Not that trees are an original motif to begin with. (I probably wouldn't use it I didn't had an idea to use it in a new perspective. Actual nature without technology is horrible and terrifying.) But there's also another approach than going with the culturally establlished pairs. To people for who trees and water are essential, the really unsettling thoughts would be absence  of trees and absence of water. Dry, barren rocks would make for a great motif for negative expressions.

I thought some more on how I could use the imagery of  trees and water to create a more pronounced mystical aspect than what is found in most fanntasy. I originally got this whole idea from the imagery of fire and ash, which is of course a symbol for creation and decay. Again something that has been done plenty of times and I've long been intrigued by a blurring of present and past and an apparent absence of future. Trees can make a great symbol for persistence and durability. Of course, determined humans have long been able to clear huge areas of trees when they put their minds to it, but unless you really clear a patch of land of all vegetation that green stuff just keeps coming back very quickly. A full tree takes some time to grow, but unless you constantly fight it back, plants will cover up everything. Trees also age very  slowly and can live very long. As a symbol, trees can be regarded as eternal.
Water is also interesting in this context because it exists in a constant cycle between clouds, rains, and rivers, that is always active but also keeps going forever. Yet  while it's doing so it's slowly reshaping the whole surface of the world. Of all the elements and natural forces, I think water represents the passage of time the best. But a cyclical passage of time without start or end point.
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Offline Skip

Re: Working with symbolic imagery
« Reply #4 on: February 14, 2018, 03:46:13 PM »
I'm liking the concepts, Yora. A terrible, world-killing drought would make a fine enemy, but it could also just be the imagery of rocks, as you say. Rock as the antithesis of soil.

The longevity of trees, especially if you make magical ones that live even longer, make a fine contrast to the transience of human life, and the cyclical nature of plant life in general would be a great metaphor for what mystical humans might long for.

Extend the metaphorical language for each. Not just rock but lava, which takes you over to fire. Stone cliffs versus the eternal sea. The airlessness and stillness of caverns contrasted with the breezes of sea and forest. This becomes very rich. You could even contrast human occupations--the gardener versus the blacksmith.

Go write something!!!
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Offline Yora

Re: Working with symbolic imagery
« Reply #5 on: February 14, 2018, 09:32:34 PM »
Stone crumbles, plants just keep growing back.
Roots are the fingers of crushing fists, reducing buildings to dust.

I already raised the idea of Nature themed fantasy a while back. The challenge with all of this is that these themes and imagery are not really plot related, but I'm spending some time every day on what can be done with it.
I'm quite supportive of the claim that "there are no natural disasters". Devastation is the result of people lacking the ability to deal with rapidly changing conditions. (Haiti and the Dominican Republic are on the same island, yet one is close to a ruined waste while the other is doing just fine.) Simply putting people in situations of (super)natural changes and reacting in conflicting ways might perhaps be enough to get a couple of characters fighting in front of a plant and weather heavy background.
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