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Copyright © 1999,
Dorian Scott Cole

 Chasing Shadows and Using Symbols

Form Vs Content

Part of the Meaning in Characterization Series


Notes regarding word definitions indicated by the blue text: Hold your cursor over the text to see definitions and explanatory notes. Works in advanced browsers. Definitions are from Microsoft Bookshelf: © & 1987-1996 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.

What do symbols have to do with meaning in life? Symbols tend to hide things from us. Symbols often represent a wide array of feelings, thoughts, motivations, associations, traits, and expectations - that is, content. Most of these things are available to us if we think deeply about it, but most of the time we don't realize that a symbol, such as a pretty face, represents so many things to us. If we can look beyond the symbol, we can better understand what motivates us. And if we can do that for ourselves, we can do it in characterization.

Character motivation, and motivation in our lives, has to do with getting something we want. Sometimes deciphering the symbols helps to clarify what it is that we really want.

I think that the easiest way for a writer to understand symbols and to understand how to create characters who are misled by form (symbols), is to understand how people actually do it in real life. There is no lack of examples.

And before someone accuses me of feeling "superior," remember that I write somewhat from my own experience as well as observation. And the knowledge presented here is not for the purpose of teaching psychology or writing, but for giving relevant examples of using symbols and challenging people to dig deeper. To study these subjects involving psychology, sociology, or religion, the reader should turn to authoritative books or classes. To work on finding meaning in their own life, the reader should consult qualified professionals in religion, philosophy, or the social sciences.

Great Expectations

Suppose I go to a bookstore and see a book that entices me by its cover to buy it. It purports to tell the secrets of some great author. The cover is very mysterious, promising to reveal deep dark secrets that have been buried for ages, and which will make me very successful if I follow them. I take the book home and set it on a shelf and don't touch it for two months. I know that in the book on that shelf I have all the secrets of the ages. I know that as soon as I read them, I will become successful. After two months I finally find the time to read the book. The book is filled only with ad-libs from the author's life and the famous people he has met, and tired old proverbs that I have heard a thousand times.

For two months, the book was a symbol of secrets, writing skills, expectations (promises, potential), and success. Even though the book held nothing important, it still was a symbol of all those important things. It represented things which were important to me. It had the right form - a book, a cover, pages, words on paper, good title, promises, authority - but it lacked real content. In fact, the book could have contained nonsense syllables, and had I not discovered them, it still would be a symbol. If I had put off reading the book for ten years, it would have remained a symbol for all of that time.

What if I had saved money in an envelope to buy the book, and placed it on the shelf. The envelope would represent the book, and by proxy it would represent all that the book symbolized. So the envelope would also be a symbol of the book and especially of all that it pretended to offer.

Suppose I took a second job to buy the book. The job would also be a symbol for the book. Every time I thought of the job, I thought of the book that I was working toward purchasing. Suppose I was so tired after my second job that I messed up my first job and was put on probation. The probation would be a symbol of the book, because every time I thought about probation, I thought of the book that I was going to buy.

The point is, we can have many symbols for things, and these symbols are dynamic because we assign them automatically as we live the days of our lives. When we are doing one thing, our goal - the reason we are doing it - may be very unrelated to what we are doing, except that it is a symbol for our goal. 

Shadow boxing

Form is very much related to symbols. Form is the recognizable structure of something. The human body has a form. We know that it has ears, hair, a head, arms, legs, vertical orientation... So when we see our shadow, we recognize it immediately as that of a human being. If the shadow is on a wall, we can spar with the shadow like a boxer. Every punch we throw at the shadow is instantly blocked by the shadow's punch. No matter how quickly we try to punch or outmaneuver the shadow, the shadow always blocks us. 

The shadow is the same form as an opponent, so you can make believe that the shadow is your opponent. But the shadow is your own, and you are not mad at yourself and throwing punches at yourself. The form on the wall becomes a symbol of your opponent. 

Symbols and forms are deceptively simple. But in real life we commonly mistake symbols and forms for the content commonly associated with them. This action is often associated with how badly we want the content, such as love.


Money by itself is meaningless. If we were on a deserted island, we wouldn't be able to do a thing with money except maybe stuff  it into holes in our shack to keep the elements out. It is just ink on paper. Yet the pursuit of money is what keeps many in business striving - going to any lengths to get it. It is what keeps some people working - to get more and more of it as if one could never have enough. Fear of losing it is one thing that commonly keeps people apart. Even marriages are often preceded with a prenuptial agreement that protects the money. 

Money is actually a symbol of other things. For some it is a way of valuing themselves and making a contribution. "I made $200,000.00 for the company today!" For some it is a symbol of success and personal value: "I make $300,000.00 a year, and I worked hard to get here and I'm worth every penny of it."  For many it is a symbol of power - the ability to move the earth if necessary to get what you want: "I could buy Manhattan tomorrow, and I will buy it and sell it to Paraguay if they don't quit putting these trash trucks in my way!" For some money represents their greed. If they have enough money, they can appear more powerful or worthy than another, or they can control others, or they can get things and probably deprive others. "I know he wanted that picture at the auction, but I had more money so I got it, and now he wants what I have. Money - I love it" For most of us, it's our key to daily living and long term financial security. We buy our groceries, make car and mortgage payments, and save for retirement through money. And most of us probably see money as a combination of the above.

Other things can come into play besides the things that money symbolizes. For example, if a person is raised in a culture or family in which money is always the goal and the good things that money symbolizes is never mentioned, then that person integrates that into his personality as an ideal. Chances are that at some point the person will find making money to be meaningless. 

Two psychological situations can also be influential. One is habit strength. If a person always gives money a preeminent place in his life, then that habit will become very hard to break. Habit strength isn't formed by simple addition - it is a multiple of length of time X frequency. So the more times the person thinks of money, and the longer this goes on, the more powerful the habit becomes. 

Conditioning can also play a strong role. When a person associates one thing with another (Pavlov's dog, food accompanied by a bell - mouth waters at sight of food, mouth soon waters at sound of bell), the person can soon be conditioned to be motivated by the symbol (money) instead of the object (all the things it can buy, do, etc.). So conditioning and habit can put a person on an endless chase after money, until the person realizes that it is meaningless. 

When a person or character is working for money, or negotiating for more money, then the money symbolizes one of the above things, or it is a psychological influence. What content does the symbol money have for your characters?

Love and Sexuality

A pretty face is a symbol. A handsome face is a symbol. A nicely shaped masculine or feminine body is a symbol. What those symbols mean differs some for everyone, but basically they are symbols in the eye of the beholder of certain potentials. These potentials are acceptance, love (caring), intimacy, and security which are commonly represented by the symbol of physical beauty. So when a man sees a pretty face, he associates it with acceptance, love (caring), and intimacy. 

These things may not be available to the man or woman, and they shouldn't be an expectation. But with strong desire for these things, and habit and conditioning, it's little wonder that men and women are so strongly impacted by the symbol. People often act as if the potential was a reality. In studies, men stop to help attractive women more often than they do those who are less attractive. Would that physically attractive person make a better wife or be hateful and selfish? Men act on the potential instead of realizing it is a symbol to them. Similarly, women go after men who are athletic or have money, seeing the potential of protection and security. Would these physically endowed people really make better husbands, or would they be brutal and selfish? There is no instant way to tell, but women often act on the potential instead of realizing that the body is only a symbol, not reality. 

People may have gathered in their minds a collection of traits that they associate with masculine or feminine types that they have gathered from parents, family, and acquaintances. Each pleasing face may represent the entire range of masculine or feminine attributes, and those attributes may not all be pleasing. The symbol could also represent a difficult person if that is what the beholder has come to associate. 

Well, if it wasn't for initial attraction and the period of infatuation, many of us would probably never become attached to the opposite sex, but would cling to the familiar family and same-sex ties that we know. As potential and expectations dissolve into reality, we usually gain a deeper relationship and the symbol of the physical form takes on considerably more meaning.

Sigmund Freud, who is considered the father of modern (modern meaning late 19th. century, not today) psychoanalysis, found that in their use of symbols to represent objects, people sometimes used unexpected symbols. Freud's work was heavily into the sexual arena (he was encountering 18th. and 19th. Century European puritanism), and he found that people sometimes represented the object of their sexual desire by other objects. So when the person saw the form, the form symbolized to him several expectations including sex.

Well, as I have said before, I think Freud was in an extreme environment and he was way over the edge on some things, especially sexuality. Freud, Jung, and Adler primarily worked with people who we're unable to face reality (neurotic, psychotic), so their results don't transfer to the general population. But it is something to keep in mind that symbols can be "assigned" differently than we would ever expect. Symbols can also represent not just one thing, but a group of things, so it is easy for to get confused. A pretty or handsome face can represent only sexuality to some - they have substituted the form for a specific content (sexuality) - and sexuality in turn is often a symbol for other feelings, such as power and acceptance. Many people have not defined the limits on various types of relationships, so when they are in physically close and intense working conditions they can be lead to believe that they are in an intimate situation where sex is an expectation - mistaking the form of intimacy for the form of working relationship which includes acceptance, strong emotions, and some sexuality. Even the word intimate has various definitions which could mean anything from very familiar to a sexual relationship. People often symbolize the dating situation as their "sex object," and their sex object can represent a number of things to them. So any pretty or handsome face will do. 

When creating a character, how does your character regard love and sexuality? Does he regard sexuality as "playing around," and love and sexuality are separate, such as President Clinton seems to? Can she have a close working relationship with a man without sexuality (point of view, perceived limitations, attraction) becoming an obstacle? Is sex an expectation anytime your character is with the opposite sex? What content does the symbol of sexuality have for your character?

The "Other" and the "Shadow" in psychology

Psychiatrist Carl Jung developed theories from his work about the unconscious (AKA. subconscious, or motivations about  which we are not aware) in which there existed two components, the Other and the Shadow. He felt that both of these were symbolized to us both in dreams and by projecting them onto other people. The Other comprises aspects about ourselves which we have not confronted. Once we have confronted them, then they are conscious and can be integrated. But until we do there are aspects of ourselves of which we are not aware which control our behavior, often unexpectedly and without explanation. (Personally I think the Other steadily diminishes in most people as they mature.)

We can get a glimpse of the Other by listening to our criticisms of other people. Those traits we criticize in others are sometimes projections of the Other. Projecting traits means that we create a mask on others of our own traits. I prefer to think that sometimes we see others through a filter of things that we are sensitive to so that we emphasize some traits of others more than others, and these traits are sometimes similar to our own unrecognized traits. 

The Shadow, on the other hand, is composed of our traits that we have seen and we hide from (repress). I personally don't believe that we totally repress anything except some horrific trauma (which probably causes an actual neurosis), we just choose not to give self-criticism or unpleasant subjects the time of day (give it any influence over us). We refrain from giving things full mental awareness and serious consideration. I haven't worked in this field, so my opinion is not worth much, but many experts feel the same - we are usually aware of our desires and experiences, but don't permit ourselves to spend any time thinking about them. So we know that something is there, but we don't think about it. The Shadow seems to be to be an appropriate term - slightly visible but the details are not showing.

The Shadow is also something that we symbolize either in dreams or by projecting onto someone else. So when we look at others and have a strong reaction to some trait, these people can also be symbols of something within us. I think the Shadow appears when an irresponsible person is screaming about the irresponsibleness of others. It also may appear when the person with artificially inflated esteem (false ego) puts others down for their value, or loudly criticizes their small misdeeds. These are the most common things that I hear which might be ascribed Jung's theory of the symbolic projection of Other and Shadow. But on the other hand, we are often blind to our own faults even though we can see the same faults in others - it doesn't have to involve projection, just a failure to be self-examining. 

The overemphasis of the theory of repression has often led the world on a difficult and harmful chase. For a while, everyone was suspected of having repressed homosexual tendencies that needed to be dragged out and addressed. Then in the 1980s, families and institutions were torn apart when false repressed memories were dug up by psychologists who tended to believe and teach that nearly everyone was sexually abused as children. The false memories apparently were being encouraged by the zealously interrogative environment and generated by imagination. Freud himself found that many of the repressed memories that he helped clients uncover were not real memories, but instead were a way to symbolize feelings the person had so that they could deal with them. These feelings were also often projected onto him or other therapists, so that the client loved, or hated, or wanted to have sex with him. This was so common that they gave it the term "transference," which is a well know occurrence in therapy. Projection and symbols are powerful agents.

The theories of the Other and Shadow to me are good examples and learning tools for symbolism. Freud, Jung and their associates found them compelling in their practice during an era when repression of one's sexuality was encouraged if not forced. But I think that widely applying them, as I did above regarding people's criticisms of others, reaches for a complex explanation when a simple one is probably correct. We should not turn everyone's criticism back against themselves, thinking that they are unwittingly criticizing their own problems.

But within this idea of Other and Shadow are excellent concepts involving symbols: projection and repression. We can project feelings and expectations onto other people or objects. We can also effectively repress feelings by the symbols we associate with them. For example, if a police officer character associates drunkenness and illegal gambling with bars, which he symbolizes by the picture of a drunk laying in an alley, he might repress any thoughts about the good aspect of bars. Suppose that he has friends who meet regularly in a bar for conversation, but on learning this he won't allow himself to think beyond the symbol. He might project his feeling about bars onto his friends and turn away from them, thinking that they are into drunkenness and illegal gambling because they go to a bar. (no criticism intended.) The criticism, of course, would be entirely untrue but it might break up a friendship. This has been and is a common occurence among people whose opinions have been polarized by those with rigid opinions or those on a crusade to advance cause (no criticism intended).

As a tool for finding meaning, understanding these concepts can help you think beyond your own symbols to the content of them. You might find that the content needs narrowed or broadened and that will open up the future. It can make a very good story.

Religion - worshipping form or content

Religion frequently uses the symbol of ritual to point to religious ideas like worship and personal sacrifice. It is very easy to confuse ritual (form) with content - it is almost as if religion encourages doing this. An excellent example of this occurred in Ancient Israel around 800-600 BCE regarding what it means to worship God. Here were the worst of the worst at worship?

The word Worship in the Pentateuch (the first five books related to the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian faiths) consistently comes from a word meaning "to bow down." This expresses respect and acknowledges the superior social or political position of the person bowed to. It is a symbolic gesture. This was the same privilege accorded to rulers of the day. It is probably this idea that sticks in our minds, and leads us to think of symbolic gestures as being "worship." But that isn't necessarily the end of it. In many situations this gesture is not just a sign of respect. For the ruler, there is the expectation of service. For the person bowing, there is the promise or potential of service. Worship isn't an empty symbol, it has content.

Christ spoke of worship as being "in spirit and in truth." The people were hungry for another great military leader to remove them from the grip of the Romans. First Christ removed the "ruler" overtones by declaring worship to be in spirit - Christ's message was not that of an earthly king, he brought a spiritual message that requires a similar response. Second, By speaking of truth, Christ pointed out that some people say one thing and then do another. In other words, one can go through the outward show of bowing to God in spiritual things, but then go and do just the opposite of what God teaches. So through worship one appears to be "religious" but it is false because one does the opposite of what is asked.

Worship of God is not just bowing to God. This was a message which had been delivered to the ancient Israelites many times by the prophets. The Prophet Amos came when Ancient Israel was at the height of its prosperity and military power. Those were heady days when the people considered themselves the chosen ones for all eternity, and seeing no end in sight they never considered that the future of their election might be conditionalLife was good and people appeased God through religious symbols: they bountifully supported religious shrines, had frequent religious feasts, and religious ceremonies abounded. But outside the Temple in their daily lives, their conduct was atrocious. Amos looked at this picture and accused Israel and her neighbors, saying, (paraphrased) "You go to one holy city and do wrong, and then you go to another and do ten times worse. You rely solely on your military power, your dealings with others are full of corruption, you ignore the poor while you sit in opulence, you are horribly immoral, you're totally shallow, and your religious feasts and ceremonies are meaningless. God hates... no, he despisesyour religious feasts and meetings! He doesn't want to hear your songs. What he wants is for justice to roll from you like an ever-flowing stream."

They didn't listen and a hundred years later the Prophet Jeremiah stepped into the scene. He tried to make them realize that their "election" was conditional. He asked (paraphrased), "Would you steal, murder, commit adultery, lie against others, worship false gods, and then come to God's House and say, "We are cleansed," and then go back out and do the same horrible things all over again? Is this Temple a den of thieves? I don't think so. God doesn't think so. Don't trust in these deceptive words, 'This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.'" Once again they were symbolically bowing to God, pretending to do what He wanted, then doing the opposite. They toyed with the symbol of religion, the form, but ignored the content.

They didn't listen to Jeremiah either, so when the Prophet Ezekiel arrive on the scene about a hundred years later, the worst was already on its way. Ezekiel said to them (paraphrased), "God is tired of talking to a bunch of rebels who won't see and won't hear anything but their own voices. You have perverted everything - the house of God has now become a symbol of your horrible crimes. You go to the Temple but you can't find God there because your crimes are blinding you and you aren't listening anyway. Well guess what, God is booting you out and leaving the Temple." 

Of course they didn't listen. Ezekiel saw the glory of God leave the Temple, and the Assyrian Empire conquered them and deported most of the people in the northern half of ancient Israel to other countries. Later a new agreement was made with "the chosen" that emphasized individual responsibility. Chosen didn't mean pampering and protecting wickedness, it meant chosen as an example and to deliver a message.

We often get misled by symbols of spirituality that are not full answers. For example, knowledge can be seen as a symbol of truth, and if we just have enough knowledge then we have conquered, or avoided, spirituality. But no one is intelligent enough to learn all possible knowledge. Knowledge always opens up many more paths, so the more you know, the more you realize you don't know. Spiritual leaders, religious cults, and religious sects often seem to have the answer. But they, too, often are symbols of spirituality or religion but their contents are composed of half-truths, or are even traps. Certainly these things may be steps on the path, but I think that any symbol of religion that is closed (can't be expanded) can't fully represent religion.


Symbols are such an integral part of our world that we really don't think about using them, but we all do continuously. Even the words we use are symbols that represent other things. The word brick is a relatively concrete word and represents a block used for building. It can represent many different types of bricks, but we understand the form, brick. Other words are much more abstract and are symbols of very complex ideas that require many words to explain. I read today that even the simple word "set" has hundreds of definitions, more than any other word in the dictionary (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary). We usually can tell by the context what idea the word is symbolizing.

Symbols help us handle the world with much greater ease. We naturally tend to fit things into categories so that we can understand them. We collect things into symbols so that the symbol can conveniently represent one or many ideas. But as we change, our perspective changes. Our categories tend to take new shape and include new items as the items in our world change and become new things. A wheel becomes a bicycle, becomes a wagon, becomes an automobile, becomes an airplane, becomes a spacecraft with no wheels...  We stretch categories and finally create new ones.

We do the same with symbols. A job is a symbol that can evolve, representing first a way to get through college, then a group of friends, a place to make a contribution, a place to learn and specialize, a way to support a family, a place to succeed and take more responsibility, respect among peers in the field and fellow employees, a group of people to be responsible for - to guide, to lead, a way for investors to create a sound future for themselves, a large number of people and families to be responsible for... and finally can represent all of these things. 

Character motivation, and motivation in our lives, has to do with getting something we want. Sometimes deciphering the symbols helps to clarify what it is that we really want.

Aside: I found one interesting symbol in the town park in Palestine, Illinois. In a small wire mesh and wood cage on the side of a tree was a bat. On closer inspection it was of the species brick. A brick bat. Masons call individual bricks, "bats." If it's old enough, it could be ground up and called bric-a-brac. OK, OK, you didn't pay anything to read this page - you don't pay for David Letterman, you don't get J. Leno.

- Scott


Vaughan, Frances, Shadows of the Sacred: Seeing through Spiritual Illusions, 1995.

Whitmont, Edward C., The Symbolic Quest: Basic Concepts of Analytical Psychology, 1969.

Aziz, Robert, C.G. Jung's Psychology of Religion and Synchronicity, 1990.

Cole, Dorian Scott, The Last Prophet, 1979. (Used for reference only, not available)

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