Saturday, February 28, 2009

Symbolic Items in Webcomics

Anything that's been around for a while contains symbolism. This is an important fact for comic creators.

Here's an excerpt from a list of floral symbolism by Santa Cruz Public Libraries. Here is their complete flower symbolism list.

Amaranth - Immortality
Anemone - Anticipation, Frailty
Apple Blossom - Admiration
Aspen Leaf - Fear
Asphodel - Death, Memorial sorrow
Bay - The poet's crown
Begonia - Dark thoughts.
Blue violet - Faithfulness
Buttercup - Wealth
Calla - Magnificent beauty, pride
Camelia, White - Innate worth
Candytuft - Indifference
Cardinal Flower - Distinction
Chrysanthemum - Cheerfulness and optimism.
Cornflower - Delicacy
Cowslip - Youthful Beauty
Crocus - Good cheer
Cyclamen - Diffidence
Cypress - Mourning
Daffodil - Unrequited love

When you use an item in a story that has symbolic meaning, not knowing the meaning weakens the credibility of the story, may confuse the reader and seems amateurish. Don't beat yourself up over the occasional mistake, but note that all objects have appeared in stories before. Endowed with meaning, they have come to represent that meaning in fresh appearances. This happens whether the author intends it or not.

Among younger authors, weary of hearing about dusty old symbolism for items far removed from their cutting edge lifestyles, there is often a rebellion against symbolism. Their hero, whether they realize it or not, is Gertrude Stein, who said, "Sometimes a rose is just a rose." I can forgive them for wanting to strike unique themes and overthrow convention. Where trouble begins is with ignorance, when symbol-loaded items are used naively.

Lists like the one for flowers are popping up all over the web, but search can usually find your answer when no list exists. Where lists are handy is for ideas, comparisons, and adding pertinent details to people, animals and places. There may be two luminescent insects that bespeak good fortune. Which is better for your story?

The world is full of natural symbols: birds, flowers, animals, weather phenomena, dates (Ides of March, Friday the 13th, etc.), fruits and vegetables, hair styles, names, eyeglass styles, hair styles, fabrics, insects -- even on a fairly sterile spaceship they occur, because their introduction is so noticeable they become irresistibly useful. .

When editing your story lines, spot objects and trace their meaning via the proliferating lists like the one above. Don't fall in line with what everyone else has done: choose objects that are less often used. The technique of reminding the reader of the meaning ("Th-the death lilly," Cynthia gasped, dropping the bouquet, as Snidely's poisoned petals constricted her lungs) has been used often, but it's sort of fake; a stand-in for a plot rather than a real plot.

In Lil Nyet , Pug and I make frequent use of turnips. You may disagree, but there is, to us, something funny about turnips. Unless you are a turnip fan, they have an aspect of being a lot of work for little reward, and turnip greens repel as many people as the root. There's not a lot of source material on turnips on the web, but one post argues they symbolize love in Scotland, because they are red. Since the turnips I know are not red, could they be thinking of beets? In Russia, where our comic is set, the traditional attachment of the Russian people to their homeland is nicely evoked by root vegetables. They also appear in Russian folk tales, suggesting a history. Unfortunately, compared to Grimm, Russian tales are bizarre, often arbitrary and possibly impaired by issues with collection, translation and vodka. Our love-hate portrayal of the turnip, and the comic opportunities that arise, might baffle a Muscovite, but in the absence of more data it works well. It may be exotic to some readers, but few are likely to mistake the mention of a turnip for a portent of war, or a tragedy at sea.

If everything I have learned about symbolism could be reduced to one point, it is this: try not to use highly symbolic items naively.

Crocus image from Planet Natural. Thank you.