As so much during the Vesak festival revolves around light—as a sign for enlightenment—I want to dedicate today’s article to the symbolism of light in literature.
The many phrases and idioms we use make it clear that we can use light in writing to create a sense of hope. From the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” to the “beacon of light” shining bright, there is a sense of coming home, of feeling safe and of finding a solution. We can feel cleansed by light because it symbolizes purity.
No life without light
Only with enough light is growth and life possible, so it can be understood as a life-giving power. When a new day dawns, the light brings possibilities and prospects or news with it.
Light against dark
In many novels, the heroine / hero will have fair skin, wear light-coloured clothes and be associated with light rather than darkness. There are exceptions, of course, such as in paranormal romance, but in general, good = light and bad = dark. Darkness and evil forces are overcome by the main character in a story, by “shining light” on a hidden truth or by reestablishing goodness and calm. He / she can serve as a “guiding light” for others, be “the light of life” for a significant other or help to “see things in a different light”.
Light means enlightenment
Not only in Buddhism and Christianity—Let there be light, Bible—but in almost all religions will you find that light plays a pivotal role. It stands for transcendence, faith and innocence. We associate it with wisdom, intelligence and learning, as a counterpart to “being kept in the dark”. That explains the ceremonial use of lights.
How to use light symbols when writing fiction
- Let a protagonist in a book light a candle… to pray, to let it shine through the window and lead somebody to them, to feel at ease and chase the demons away, to remember.
- Lighthouses carry a powerful meaning, especially if your story revolves around traveling, people gone to sea or somebody returning home.
- Use the contrast between light and dark to characterize people or to create a certain atmosphere. Describe how sunlight looks on a certain plant, how moonlight effects the night, how the light cast by a torch slowly reveals something.
- Remember that light can also have a negative effect on some, e. g. sunlight as a destructive force for vampires. This very avoidance of something usually viewed positively lends depth to the topic.
- Emphasize how important somebody is to a character by comparing him to the sun and by using words associated with light, fire, sparks etc. to describe love and attraction.