A symbol is a word or phrase that signifies an object or event which in turn signifies something or suggests a range of reference beyond itself. Symbolism is the collection of all these symbols or other symbolic elements.
More simply, a symbol is something small that reflects on something bigger than itself.
Symbols are a key part of everyday life, in a broad sense. Marketing firms use symbols inherent to the culture to pitch products. Symbols appear as icons on road signs, public transit, your phone. The letter “A” can symbolise so much: the best of a list, the best effort, the beginning. Canadian symbolism would likely use a goose to symbolise aggression; a beaver for hard work; forests for industry. They can be single words or images or animals, or they can be phrases—the Stars and Stripes is a symbol. When you get down to specific cities, more symbols can arise. It’s impossible to escape symbolism.
The symbols and symbolism I most enjoy, from a reader and writer’s point of view, are called “personal” or “private” symbols. These are built throughout a poem, a short story, or a book. Personal/private symbols are made by building associations to a symbol by giving it meaningful attributes that add to the symbol’s reference. Like taking an ant, putting a tie on it, and looking at it through a magnifying glass. The ant is the symbol, the attributes are the tie, and the symbol’s reference is the view through the magnifying glass. An ant could symbolise hard work, but adding the hat adds another attribute—let’s say business and commerce.
A personal symbol takes a symbol, but adds or changes something about it to make the symbol reflect on something different from the norm.
Let’s take the example of the lion. It symbolises pride and courage. So what other associations can be made to the symbol? It is an endangered species, faces habitat destruction, and is a victim of poaching. How can those meaningful attributes add to the symbol’s reference—how can it add to pride and courage? Destroyed pride. A threatened ego. The lack of courage and bravery.
In one of the books I recently read, the protagonist is directly associated with juniper—a type of tree—instead of a flower, like her mother is. Later in the book, in a separate instance, the love interest scrambles through a patch of juniper. Boom. Symbolism. The common association of flora (plants and flowers) to women implies they are delicate, beautiful, and to be looked at; but contradicting the flora with further description (the juniper) changes the symbol. The author adds meaningful attributes that alter the reference.
The lines between simile, metaphor, extended metaphor, and symbolism tend to get blurred. But when it comes to symbolism, it looks at something small that generally relates to a bigger picture, idea, event, or concept. The lion symbolises an abstract emotion or quality. The juniper symbolises a character. A letter (“A”) symbolises status and starts.
A recurring theme or topic in your writing can be tapped into more when you use a symbol to refer to it. If you can find something concrete and smaller than the abstract, use it as a symbol throughout the book or poem! It can help link together all of your writing and reinforce the thematic elements.