I have to disagree with Mark's thesis that modern writers shouldn't waste their time trying to use symbols and develop their own. I think you can, and that it is worthwhile.
What is a symbol? Defining our target
A symbol is an associative representation, often of an abstract concept with a more tangible or concrete idea. Symbols generally have metaphors at their core and can be used metaphorically, often with the effect of creating multiple shades of meaning layered upon a passage of simpler text.
It is important to distinguish between symbolism in general and so-called "universal symbols", which I think were the focus of Mark's post. "Universal" symbols are like the apple (fruit, actually) in Genesis; they are widely recognized as symbols with specific associative meanings that have been established through years (millennia, even) of repeated intertextual reference. To those who know the symbol, just seeing an apple immediately brings to mind all of the symbolic baggage that has been tied to it through philosophical, religious, scholarly, critical, and popular analyses. A simple image in any new text or work of art becomes a shorthand for a wealth of complex ideas. But a full appreciation of this symbolism depends on familiarity with the original source of the symbol and with important interpretations and reinterpretations of the symbol. (This is why I've put "universal" in quotes, because it is inevitably of limited reach.) I think what Mark was getting at is that it is generally beyond the scope of a single author's work to create a universal symbol, because it relies on a widespread, meta cultural experience after publication, far outside of the author's ability to control and predict, and symbols are much more likely to be widely understood and internalized in societies where people are used to thinking symbolically.
So, don't worry about creating a symbol that becomes an instantly recognizable cultural touchstone. What you can do is create strong symbols within your work. Then the question is: if it's not to provide new symbolic vocabulary for the larger culture, why do it? Great symbols can have multiple shades of meaning that enrich your story beyond the words on the page, adding new dimensionality and food for thought for any reader who pauses to think about the symbol or scene, or the interactions between symbols. It is an opportunity to enhance a narrative with philosophical meaning, statements about truths of human nature or existence, or allegory for another message. If that requires creating your own symbols, go for it.
How to create a symbol
This depends heavily on how your mind works, of course, but if your goal is to craft novel symbols (new ones, that is, not symbols for long prose fiction), you could try the following:
- Think about what your story's important themes are that you would
like to represent. Also consider whether you want your characters'
traits or particular plot developments to be artistically
significant, and if they could be represented by symbols.
- Write them all down; you can always thin it out later.
- Brainstorm physical objects, phenomena, places, relationships, events, routines that could be used, however crudely, to represent your themes. Draw analogies between them, and think about how they could be incorporated into your plot.
- Go back to the plot you have. Are there things or ideas in the story already that could be used, reinterpreted, or modified into symbols for your themes?
- If you're stuck, try reading some richly symbolic work for inspiration. Read mythology and fairy tales, especially annotated ones, to see how the symbols relate to the concepts they represent. Read analyses of The Lord of the Flies. Read parables and allegorical works. Read up on iconography in many different cultures. Go through art history or "art appreciation" textbooks for interpretations of visual symbols. Read annotated poetry and Shakespeare.
- Look at your list of potential symbols. Can any of these be given a new spin to represent something else in the story, another theme or character, or the flip side of the same theme? (What happens if your apple is a certain color? If there is a worm in it? If it's baked in a pie? If someone spills a whole barrel of apples? If it's used as a projectile weapon? If people go bobbing for apples? If an evil queen gives it to Snow White? If it withers on the tree?)
- Save your notes and refer to them as you write the plot, and as you go back through later to add in more layers of symbolism.
How to use symbols
Symbolism can be employed in many different ways, even within a single work. You can use similes and metaphors to call direct attention to it, or interweave symbols by having them show up more inconspicuously throughout (as a motif). Give the symbol more weight in the story as an object by dwelling on it more. (Describe apples more carefully and completely than you do elsewhere.) Hint at the meaning by embedding the symbol in thematically important scenes. Make it overt by making it significant to the plot.
This article, 5 important ways to use symbolism in your story, is a great place to start looking for specific ways to incorporate your symbol.
Using novel symbols means that you have to work assiduously to build symbolism into your work in an artful manner, allowing those themes and their symbols to be sufficiently developed by the moment when they should be most powerful in your story. You're growing your garden from seeds rather than planting already-blooming nursery flowers.
Even if you use your own symbols, don't forget about the power you can tap into by using "universal" symbols. Engage in intertextual dialogue and use new tools to enrich your story. (Apples are in the fruit bowl on the table during a conversation about privileged information, and the person without clearance to know things takes an apple from the bowl) -- and you can even play with these by subverting the obvious uses or meanings of the symbols (a proffered apple is refused, or the person who eats it loses his memory, or Eve was framed).
Symbolism can be as subtle or overt as you like. Obvious, hit-you-over-the-head symbols like you would find in The Scarlet Letter are pretty easy for your reader to identify, but some would scorn the lack of artistic sensitivity. Symbolism, like most things, is most satisfying for the reader when you have to work a little to get it. If it gets too subtle or obscure, most of your readers won't grasp the symbolic meaning at all and it will be lost (but you may find a few readers for whom it's a bigger payoff).
Controlling the interpretation of symbols
If you want to control the interpretation of a symbol, it needs the proper context. Identify a pattern or order of operations or something that is part of the "correct" interpretation and unlike the wrong one, and hint at it with the way you incorporate the symbol. You might think of those standardized test analogy questions (often written like "bread: butter :: ______ : roof", to be read as "bread is to butter as _____ is to roof": you can't choose an object that relates to roof with the proper association without first contemplating the relationship between bread and butter. Butter goes onto bread as a layer on top; a roof can go over a house or a building, and shingles are the top layer of a roof, but shingles would not be the correct answer because the word order would make shingles analogous to the bread). Make sure you have just enough context to let your reader draw the appropriate analogy between your symbol and its meaning.
For example, if you use a tornado as a symbol, it could be quite easy to have the reader interpret it as a symbol for emotional trauma through imagery, descriptive language about "whirling emotions", etc. But if you want a tornado to symbolize second chances, you'll have your work cut out for you; you will have to connect the dots more thoroughly for your reader by having the tornado disrupt a character's intended path to a point of no return, or show how the rebuilding allows for a new and better structure, and maybe bring the tornado imagery back into play or have your character reflect back on it and provide the correct interpretation ("you know, in hindsight, that tornado was the best thing that ever happened to me").
Remember that a symbol can represent more than one idea at once, which is usually great because it adds new dimensions to your scene and your imagery, but it also makes it difficult to completely dissociate a symbol from established "universal" meanings.