Using Symbolism to Flesh Out Your Characters

You had a dream about a man on a motorcycle, and you can’t stop thinking about him. You’re convinced that he’d make a great hero, if you could just find the right story for him.

But you can’t remember the rest of the dream. You don’t know anything about him except that he rides a motorcycle.

How can you get a handle on your mystery man? Start by asking:

“What do motorcycles symbolize?”

  • Motorcycles are fast. Maybe this man loves zooming along on his hog because it gives him a sense of movement that’s lacking from his otherwise stagnant life. If he feels like he’s in last place in his career or his marriage, going for a ride on his motorcycle might be how he copes—with the landscape rushing by, he can pretend for a few moments that at least he’s winning this race.
  • Motorcycles are agile. A man who prefers a motorcycle to a car might have an agile mind—he might be the kind of person who thinks on his feet and isn’t fazed no matter what you throw at him.
  • Motorcycles are small enough to pass through spaces where even the most compact car won’t fit. If this is what your rider loves about his bike, it’s possible that he’s someone who doesn’t like following the rules and is constantly looking for loopholes that will allow him to get what he wants. Or maybe he’s impatient, and he knows that as long as he’s on his motorcycle, he’ll never again be stuck in a traffic jam—wasting time is agonizing to him.
  • Motorcycles can handle terrain that a standard car can’t. What if your mystery man was injured during a tour of duty, and now he can only limp along slowly with a cane? But when he’s riding, he’s no longer limited by his injuries, and he can go anywhere, including the wilderness areas where he used to hike. The motorcycle could be a symbol of freedom for him.
  • Riding a motorcycle is riskier than driving a car, not because motorcycles are inherently unsafe, but because other drivers on the road are less likely to notice a motorcycle or to give the cyclist enough space. So the fact that this man is riding one demonstrates that he’s a risk-taker to some degree. He might be the kind of person who takes calculated risks or he might be a reckless adrenaline junkie.
  • Motorcycles aren’t a mainstream form of transportation. Why has he chosen an unconventional ride—is he rebelling against mainstream society, or is he just a free spirit who marches to a different drum?

You can probably think of other things that motorcycles symbolize to you, and one of them will give you a toehold into this character’s personality. He’s a creation of your subconscious, and he’s riding a motorcycle because your subconscious is trying to tell you something important about him.

Once you’ve worked through your personal symbolism around motorcycles, ask yourself a second question:

“What is this character’s relationship to his motorcycle?”

In other words, what could the motorcycle symbolize to him? How is the bike an extension of this man’s personality?

  • Does he see himself as a knight in shining armor, and the motorcycle as his modern day steed?
  • Is he a geek who’s trying to change his image by riding a hog with a flames-and-skulls paint job?
  • Is he trying to impress the girl in chemistry class who doesn’t even know he exists?
  • Is he a wanna-be cowboy with a fear of horses?

These two questions have probably given you a feel for the character’s personality. Now it’s time to get more specific.

“How does this character use his bike?”

In other words, what meaningful role does it play in his life?

  • Is this man a recreational rider, one of those people who get together in groups and take caravan-style road trips together during their vacations? That suggests he’s got a stable job and a reasonable source of income. He probably also has a car for daily use. It also hints that he feels the need to regularly escape from his everyday life or that he’s periodically struck with wanderlust.
  • Or maybe he’s a member of a motorcycle gang. He still might ride around in a group, but for completely different reasons. And he’ll have a completely different lifestyle than our recreational rider. His bike may be the thing that keeps him ahead of the law, or a symbol of his status in the gang, or an expression of his personal bad-assery.
  • Could he be an amateur racer, moving from one town to the next and scraping by on the money he wins in illegal or barely-legal contests? Maybe he’s always dreamed of being a Nascar driver, but he’s got a disability that disqualifies him. Or maybe the death of his high-school sweetheart in a drunk driving accident has so scarred him that he can’t stand to be in one place for more than a few days.
  • Has he deliberately chosen the motorcycle as his sole source of transportation? He’s probably a lone wolf without much of a social life or a family. You can’t drive a group of friends to the movies on a motorcycle, or strap on an infant car seat.
  • Is the motorcycle his only transportation option? Maybe he’s trying to bootstrap himself out of poverty, and the motorcycle is a step up from the bicycle that he used to ride for his courier job.

How did he get the motorcycle?

How the motorcycle entered his life will also hint at what it means to him.

  • Did he clear out his savings or work two jobs so he could afford it?
  • Did he buy it as a present for himself when the company he started in his garage went public?
  • Did he inherit it from his father, who died when he was a baby?
  • Did he build it from junkyard parts one summer in high school, as a way to keep busy after that cheerleader broke his heart?
  • Did he steal it from his abusive step-father when he left home at 16?
  • Is it an antique that he’s lovingly restored? Is the bike a link to his beloved late grandfather, who once owned a bike just like this before he shipped out to fight in World War II?

Can the symbolism be twisted in an interesting way?

  • A lot of bikers enjoy (or are at least comfortable with) the riskiness of riding a hog. What if your character is the opposite? He’s a mousy accountant who’s terrified of riding his motorcycle, but his wife has just left him for a Neanderthal, and he’s convinced he can win her back by changing his image with a shiny new Harley.
  • Your mystery man was raised as a Hell’s Angel by his father, but left the gang as a teen because he couldn’t stand the violence. Now he’s grudgingly rejoined in order to solve the mystery of his brother’s death. Every time he gets back on his motorcycle, he’s reminded of the terrible person he used to be.
  • He’d rather be driving a sports car, but your character has been pressured by his coworkers to buy a motorcycle and go riding with them after hours—and he does, because he really wants to fit in. In this case, the motorcycle is no longer a symbol of rebellion, but a symbol of his need to conform.

You can also come at the symbolism of your character’s possessions from the other direction, of course—if you already know that your character is a loner or a non-conformist or a sociopath, you can give him a motorcycle and a related backstory that emphasizes the traits you want to communicate to the reader.

Can you think of a symbolic object that your main character might possess, or want to possess?