Allegory is the kind of thing that can get readers, and writers, a little frustrated.
When using literary devices like allegory, symbolic language and sweeping extended metaphor get confusing, and for some readers, it’s downright frustrating to try and pick apart hidden meaning in stories, let alone incorporate that hidden meaning into their own work.
But there’s no need to be frustrated! Allegory is actually pretty straightforward.
Let’s talk about what it is, where you might have seen it before, and how you can use it to add depth to your own novels or stories.
What is Allegory?
An allegory, in simple words, is when a story contains a symbolic, ‘hidden’ meaning underneath its literal surface meaning. This meaning is used to explain a hidden message, or a moral.
This is easiest to identify in children’s books or T.V. shows.
In a given book or episode, the characters will be faced with a problem which translates to some real-world issue, and the way the characters work to solve it gives us the moral of the story.
For example: in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the characters will be faced with a threat, usually a threat to their friendship.
Each character’s approach to handling this solution will represent a different way that real-world people respond to these sorts of threats. Eventually, they come together and handle the issue, and the episode ends with a lesson about how to be a good friend. Knowing your character’s motivation is key in allegorical story-telling.
While allegory is maybe most easy to identify in children’s media, it’s also a powerful tool in adult fiction.
Adult fiction can use this hidden meaning to add commentary on contemporary society, which can make for a very compelling reading experience.
Much in the way that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic teaches children how to be better friends, the best allegorical adult fiction teaches us how to be better people.
Side note: if you’re not sure how allegory works, using children’s shows is a great start, since they generally take a moment to explain to the audience what the message was at the end. This means you can go back through and figure out what each character was meant to represent, basically putting the clues together in reverse.
Examples of Allegory
Let’s take a look at a few examples of allegory across genres and reading levels.
1. “Animal Farm” by George Orwell
On the surface, this is a story about farm animals trying to overthrow the owner of the farm. A reader needs no outside information or clues to get this—this is the literal meaning of the story.
However, allegorically, Orwell uses this setting and these animals to comment on totalitarianism and the Russian Revolution. The owner of the farm represents the totalitarian leader, or Czar Nicholas II in specific.
The animals are meant to represent the working class of Russia—they’re the ones actually doing the work to keep the farm going, and they’re overseen by the owner. These animals are initially charged up to make sweeping changes to the farm, but in the end, they recreate the same sort of oppressive regime they meant to get out from underneath.
What’s the point?
Following this allegory, we can see Orwell delivering a pointed message about effective revolution. He argues, through the symbolic meaning in his surface story, that a small, radical group overthrowing a government will always replicate that government.
In other words, tyranny is inevitable without empowering the lower classes. Just replacing the people in power won’t solve the problem.
2. The story of Icarus
In the story of Icarus, a father and son create wings made of wax to escape from the island of Crete. Icarus puts his wings on, flies out, and gets cocky. He flies too close to the sun, which causes his wings to melt, and tragically falls.
The summary I just gave is the surface story. These are the literal events that take place in it, which a reader can follow.
However, there’s also an allegorical meaning here. Icarus is a famous example of getting too cocky, crashing, and burning.
If we apply this meaning, the story has a message: don’t get arrogant in pursuing your goals, or you might be destroyed.
3. “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
On its surface, the Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen, a citizen from District 13, which is a region in Panem. Panem is meant to be a dystopian America. Panem hosts an annual Hunger Games, where children are recruited to fight and die for sport.
Katniss volunteers when her sister is chosen, and she’s sent to the Capitol, where she fights for her life in the Games. In the end, beats the Games and keeps both herself and her partner, Peeta, alive by having them both threaten suicide.
The Hunger Games also has an allegorical read. Panem represents our society, and maybe also Hollywood, and the Districts represent regular people.
Following this reading, Suzanne Collins is making a comment on how people in our contemporary society have become desensitized and numb to the extreme violence being done to real children in oppressed groups.
How to Use Allegory in Your Story
Now that we know what allegory is and how it works, let’s talk about how to make sure you’re using allegory effectively in your novels or stories.
1. Identify your hidden story
Before you set out to write an allegory, you’ll want to identify the hidden story you want to tell. What’s the message you’re trying to give to your readers?
It’s extremely difficult to apply allegory to a story after it’s already been written. Unlike symbolism, which can happen without the writer meaning for it to happen, allegory involves carefully placed clues. When these clues are put together, the message becomes clear.
This means you need to know what your message is from the start.
You should also figure out how the surface story connects to that hidden story. Orwell, for example, uses the farm as his setting, and works with this extended metaphor throughout the book. Your surface story should give you the tools you need to deliver your message.
2. Label your characters and settings
Next, you’ll want to label your characters and settings clearly. This is where that surface story comes in—assign different elements of the allegory to specific features in that surface story.
To go back to Animal Farm: the farm animals are producing the labor, so they’re the working class. The owner of the farm is the totalitarian leader. Orwell’s using these elements of a farm to his advantage.
Keep track of which characters represent what in your story. I personally recommend keeping a chart to help you map your characters. Getting these mixed up will muddle your meaning, and it’ll make your message unclear or illegible.
If you need more help on developing your characters, check out this video.
3. Keep allegory references subtle, but not invisible
Allegory can be a very powerful tool when it’s used well, but when it’s used badly, it can come off as corny. This is especially true if you use surface elements that are a little too obvious.
If you’ve got a story critiquing capitalism and the villain is literally someone’s boss, for example, that might feel on-the-nose.
Basically, you want to avoid lecturing your reader. If your story sounds like you’re using a closely-related metaphor to write an essay, the allegory may be too heavy-handed.
You also don’t want it to be too subtle. You definitely want readers to be able to connect the clues you’ve laid out for them to get that message, so making it too difficult to understand or too abstract can also cause problems.
If you’re not sure whether you’ve struck the balance, it might be helpful to enlist the help of a few beta readers or a close friend.
4. Don’t forget about the story
Finally, when you’re writing an allegory, the surface story should still make sense and be satisfying.
The reader shouldn’t have to put your message together in order to understand what happened.
Maybe they didn’t get the allegorical meaning—and not every reader will—but the literal story should still be followable and satisfying.
In other words, your characters should still be characters unto themselves in the setting you’ve created.
They should still have motivations that relate to their character, and the events in the story should still be motivated by those wants and needs. Your reader shouldn’t need a degree in political science to understand why one of your characters is doing something in your story.
The Hunger Games, for example, is still a fun dystopian series without thinking about contemporary issues with American media. You are missing out on a lot of depth if you don’t catch that second layer, but you’ll still probably enjoy the story, and that story still makes sense.
Take a look at your story when you’ve finished drafting it and consider whether the events make sense on their own, without any allegorical meaning. If not, you need to get to work on your surface story.
Character-Mapping for Allegorical Story References
Writing allegory can be a fun way to explore new ideas in the novel you’re writing or the short story you’re creating. It’s also an opportunity for you, as the storyteller, to make bolder statements about society or politics without making it too obvious.
As you write this kind of fiction, there are some techniques that will help keep things feeling subtle and more natural.
- First off, label all of your characters with their hidden traits so readers know who they are reading about at any given time. You can use a template, like our Character Development worksheet, to help you have a clean reference in front of you when writing.
- Second, remember not everything has to have an allegorical meaning—you want people engaged by the interesting events happening on screen or page.
- Finally, try keeping references subtle instead of being outright overt—this allows readers to feel like they might have found something out themselves
Want to learn more about using creative writing strategies, like allegory, in your writing?
Sign up for our free online class!