How to Make Stories Allegorical
Every story has something to say, and sometimes our stories become more than what we expect – there are times when we weave hidden themes or have deeper meaning with use of symbols, and sometimes stories become allegorical, without us realising. For others, creating metaphors and allegories takes a great deal of planning.
But what exactly is an allegory?
We’ve all read stories with strong moral themes that teach us something about the world around us and how humanity fits within it. It’s a metaphor – but not the short metaphors we sprinkle throughout our novels. This metaphor runs through the entire story arc and uses characters, events or situations, themes, sub plots, symbols etc., to show the reader the moral of the story, but which falls outside of the literal interpretation of the story. Beneath the actual story lies the real meaning. And like any metaphor, it must have meaning; otherwise the reader won’t understand it.
An allegorical story can be about anything – they can be about religion, politics, social problems, modern culture, history, humanity or whatever the author wants to comment on (without it ever turning into author intrusion.
That’s all very well, but how can you write an allegorical story?
Let’s consider some famous examples. On the surface, George Orwell's Animal Farm is about a farm governed by animals that make a stand against their human masters because of how they’re treated. But beneath the surface lies a metaphor – the real story is political; it’s about Stalin’s communist regime around the Russian Revolution in 1917 and how badly Russians were treated by their Government.
Orwell uses the animals on the farm to convey different ‘human’ characteristics and characters. Snowball the pig was based on Leon Trotsky. His altruistic efforts are undermined by the domineering and increasingly tyrannical Napoleon, who is clearly based on Joseph Stalin. He is backed by Squealer, who was based on Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s right-hand man. Their behaviour and lust for power represent the overbearing need to oppress the hard working common people and keep that power.
Orwell used different animals to represent real life people and used various situations to show the how the idea of ‘everyone is equal’ disintegrates the moment one character becomes dictator. Around the central story he carefully entwines many supporting themes – oppression, power, greed, inequality and so on, and he uses symbols and motifs to build upon and continue the metaphor.
Another famous allegory is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. On the surface this is a story of schoolboys who become shipwrecked on an island and have to fend for themselves while they wait for help to arrive. But beneath the surface, the true story is about the volatility, fragility and vanity of human nature and how we can, under certain circumstances, lose our civility and revert to our savage, primitive selves.
Where Orwell created animals to represent real people, Golding creates characters that each represents human traits. For instance, Ralph’s character represents civility, order and strong leadership. Piggy’s scientific mind and intellect represent an ordered and logical society. Simon represents the good of humanity, while Roger represents evil. Lastly, Jack represents the human desire for greed and power. Golding the weaves the themes of power, struggle, civility, fear and lost innocence throughout the story to create one long metaphor.
To create an allegorical story, you have to understand what the true meaning of your story is. What deeper meaning does it want to convey? For example, what if your story of a character’s rite of passage is really a metaphor for the simple human need to be loved? Can the story have a wider, deeper meaning? Humans are very needy, after all. You might be writing an historical story about two people who fall in love, against the backdrop of the Holocaust – so on the surface there exists a romance story, but beneath, there’s a much deeper meaning; a political statement about Nazism and oppression, perhaps.
You need to know the context of the story you’re creating and plan it carefully. Allegorical stories rely on ideas, morals, concepts and images that are familiar to us, because we understand and can connect to them, and so writers exaggerate them. If there is a much deeper meaning to your story, look at how you can use your characters, or how you can use surreal concepts and ideas, such as Orwell did with animals, or how you can use situations, setting, themes, symbols and motifs to create and carry the metaphor beneath the surface of the story.
Very often there is a deeper, hidden meaning beneath most stories...if you look hard enough.
Next week: Can you write a story within a story?