Finding Story Talismans and Motifs

The decision to completely rewrite a book from scratch brings with it an opportunity I missed the first time around – having clarity about how I want it to look and feel.

When I started Behind Closed Doors in early 2019, I had a story I wanted to tell, and I charged into the telling of it with all the grace of a hippo trying on shapewear. It wasn’t a completely terrible story – it won me a place on the KSP/Four Centres Emerging Writers Program – but I wasn’t 100% convinced that the story I wrote was the one I had wanted to tell.

One thing I will be doing differently this time is introducing story talismans for my characters.

A talisman – or motif – is a literary device that is associated with a particular character or location and which is repeated throughout the story. It has both meaning and significance like a symbol, but unlike symbolism which is often just used once (such as a raincloud descending just as the protagonist realises they have made a terrible mistake or the character getting stuck in a traffic jam to symbolise his inability to move forward), a motif is repeated purposefully throughout the book.

Motifs and talismans can be objects, colours, emotions, settings, phrases or words. They are deliberate and considered, and add layers to your story’s theme.

As explained by NY Book Editors: ‘It’s the difference between a towel and a tapestry. A story without motifs is an ordinary kitchen towel. It’ll do its job, but it’s not spectacular in any way. On the other hand, a story with motifs is like a handwoven tapestry. It takes time, skill, and careful deliberation to hand weave a pleasing picture or meaningful design into a piece of fabric.’

As I begin to develop my characters and plot the new story, I am experimenting with finding talismans for each of my characters. They must feel organic and symbolise both the character’s story and journey.

For example, I have a character affected by dementia, and her talisman will be clocks and calendars to symbolise the passage of time. If I have a scene with a clock that has stopped, or she discovers a calendar from years past, it will symbolise a lack of progress and being stuck in the past. Even her name, April, is related to the idea of time.

Her husband, Roger will have an elephant as a talisman, perhaps it will be embroidered onto a shirt, a painting on his study wall or a brass ornament on his desk. Elephants are symbolic of patience and stamina, longevity, family love, long memories as well as fortune and success. He will need all of these things as he cares for his wife over the years.

The motifs are not necessarily part of the story and often do not carry any extra meaning for the characters themselves. It is something between the author and audience – Reedsy talks about leaving the motifs like a ‘trail of breadcrumbs’ for the reader to find. They must be both subtle yet significant.

The nice thing about motifs is that you don’t actually need to have them figured out for your first draft. They can easily be introduced into a later draft – and sometimes they might not be immediately apparent, and only after spending time with your characters do they become obvious. This is the blog from Reedsy about the different ways you can introduce motifs to your book as well as some examples from literature.

I wrote about all of my ten characters for the first version of Behind Closed Doors, but six of them were secondary, and they’re now getting a promotion to primary characters. But I already know them, which is why deciding on their talisman has been relatively straightforward.

It’s been fun thinking about each character and these special, meaningful images that I will pepper throughout their stories. I imagine that by the time I finish the first draft of the new book, the motifs will have changed or broadened somewhat, but I hope they add a richness to the story, that perhaps was missing from the first version.

If you’re interested in adding motifs to your story, here are a couple of websites that talk about symbols and animal totems: something might suddenly leap out as being relevant to your story.

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