Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Story Challenge of The Week

ancient-godsWell, it’s Monday and that means that it’s time for another story challenge. As I’m writing this I’m also watching a 40K battle report from Bluetable Painting. Yes, I am a giant nerd. However, this is an awesome group of gamers both personally and professionally, so they are lots of fun to watch. You’ve done this kind of story challenge before, but it is fairly complicated. I’m going to give you a series of criteria including genre, theme, some character archtypes, etc. Your job is to write a story that includes all of the features required in the challenge. If you intend to post it here, please keep it short. However, the complexity of this challenge often requires a longer story.

Theme: The Awakening of Ancient Gods

Genre: Science Fiction

Setting: A heavily populated, technologically advance central world

Character Archetypes:

1) The Android Servant (this could be anything from a butler to an assassin/bodyguard)

2) The Genius but Skeptical Scientists

3) The Prophet

4) An Insane Homeless Man


1) A holy icon

2) A powerful weapon

3) A bracelet

Setting up your novel: Theme and Mood

I know there are several ways to write a novel. Tolkien just ran with it. GRRM already knows who sits on the Iron Throne. Each of us have likely at least started a story where we planned it out or which we just sat down and started writing, making up characters and settings as the whims struck. With Nanowrimo so close, however, I’m going to give a little guide that may (or may not) help you with your literary challenge come November.

There is an entity which is oft ignored by authors. Theme and mood are ultimately the driving, intangible, overarching feel and lesson of the story at hand. Sure it may shift a little in a few scenes, but at the end of the book what should the reader come away with? This paints everything else you write.

Mood is fairly simple. Is it up beat? Is it dour? When the reader finishes should they feel like a piece of their soul just died because their beloved king died? And then his son? And the mother? And by the end you’re left wondering what’s the point of life? (You know what I’m talking about) This can change quickly scene to scene, but still there will be an overarching feel the reader has fairly consistently.

Check out more here.
Check out more here.

Theme is where life gets complicated. What does theme even mean? I get breathy when I think of it, it exhausts me so. The theme could be the overall lesson, an image that shows up often, a culture which you pulled information from, or any other very prevalent thing. That’s right, theme is so wide as to get described using the word thing.

Theme as culture

I try to make sure all my worlds have a real world basis. I don’t always keep very true to it, and sometimes it’s a grouping, but I find it gives it far more reality. I recently worked on a world which borrowed heavily from Norse society. The gods were a little different, the basic world was slightly different, but at the end of the day they were my inspiration. However, remember the society doesn’t have a monopoly on their culture, especially in this day and age. Sure they are the primary source and should be used, but the Norse culture has been rehashed a dozen times. When getting into the mindset I read the Edda Pros, sure, but I also played the snot out of Skyrim. I no longer simply read about the gods and the way of life. I was able to live an interpretation of it. And it got people off my back for playing Skyrim. Remember, research can be fun.

Theme as what the reader should perceive

Once upon a time there was a bear who sat down at his tablet and chiseled a story halfheartedly without any central theme for the reader. In the end all the cubs thought he wanted them to maul humans. That’s why bears eat us. Don’t promote bears eating humans: have a central theme.

In school this was that annoying thing called a thesis. The harder part now is you don’t have a the last sentence in your first paragraph telling us what your theme is, you have a hundred or more pages inferring it. Come up with the purpose of your story. Perhaps write down two or three ideas. When you write, this is your north star. It’s to keep your message consistent. Martin is telling us the common people suffer when there’s war. Tolkien is telling us great things can come from small packages and go on an adventure. If you read the books you really like, chances are there is some underlying theme that you follow throughout the book.

Now your theme can also end up like your thesis for your college papers likely ended up: you finished writing, read what you put down, and then wrote your thesis. To have a theme now is just to help guide you. You understand what struggles should be apparent and what type of settings you might desire.

Theme as items

You remember in high school when they told you “This color is used throughout the book because…” and then you started yawning and wondering if you’d get that date over the weekend? Me neither. There was no date. However, writers often use symbolism of some sort to indicate more than the color of the drapes. Figure out which symbols match your feeling and include them. Just jot them off on the side and when you decide to use your theme in the future, check that list to see what you can incorporate. I’m writing a story with gods of life and death. When death was near I would either show the god of death or the goddess of life in disrepair.

The key to all of this is to remember it’s malleable. You’re not writing it in stone, but giving yourself some direction. This will help to set up in the future. It helps give you an idea of what you want to do. Take these as guides which can be removed or replaced at a whim. I’ve just found it helps a great deal to start my novel by first writing down the mood and theme. I also do it for individual scenes, but I’ll touch on that later.

Until then, what is a mood you would like writing about? What is a theme for your readers to take from it and how will you show that throughout your book?

Plot Challenge of the Week

Okay, so this is going to be a very short, very easy challenge.  If you’ve been following along then you should have several characters, and a world with a couple of distinct countries, several cities, and a few random locations (at least), to work with.  However, we haven’t really touched on your story yet.  So today I want you to come up with a basic theme (the point of the story) and plot (what happens in the story) for your story.  A theme could be something like ‘good vs. evil’ or ‘true love wins out’. Your theme should be the basic driving point or idea of your story.  Is it action, romance, epic, etc.  Your plot could be something like ‘murder mystery’ or ‘epic battle to save the world’.  It should deal with what actually happens in your story to portray your theme.  The more specific your theme and plot the better, to a point.  For the moment keep both your theme and your plot under one sentence.  Try to be specific and relatively detailed in that sentence, but keep it a single sentence for each.

Today’s Theme: Dragons!

And not just any dragons, but the giant ones! I was going to start a series on world building that I’ve been meaning to write.  However, considering that it’s two in the morning, and I’m just now getting the chance to write this post, we’re going to have an extra theme challenge instead.  The world building can wait for tomorrow.  So, this is a special theme challenge:  Below you will find several pictures of dragons and you must write a story about one of them.  No one is exempt, if you read this blog, then you must write a story… … … as if any of you listen to me in the first place :P.  For those of you who don’t know smileys (like me a month ago), that’s me sticking my tongue out at you, heheheheheheheheheheh… can you tell it’s two in the morning yet?  Anyway, all the normal rules for theme challenges apply.  Write your stories, share them if you want to, and enjoy the cool pictures!

































Pick me! Pick me! I'm Tobias' favorite!

Plot Challenge of the Week Part 3: Write the &%$* Story

Alright, at this point – if you’ve been following along with this plot challenge series – you should have a defined setting, several developed characters, a solid theme, and a plot outline.  That means that if you haven’t started writing yet, it’s time to start.  So your challenge for the week is very simple – write the &%$* story.  We often do a lot of thinking about a story, a lot of groundwork for a story, but when it actually comes time to write – well, we don’t.  So, sit down and write! Do it now! Write! Write! Write!