Motifs—What the heck are they and why should you use them in your writing?
I will admit that, as a writer, I have often been asked, “What’s your book about?” but I’ve never even once been asked, “What are the motifs in your book?” It would appear that no one really thinks or cares about motifs, so why would a writer care to include them?
The answer is simple—motifs can add a layer of depth and meaning to your writing without being heavy-handed or interfering with your plot.
Do you want your book to have something central that helps create a sense of unity throughout? Do you want something to resonate through the beginning, middle, and end of your book to help tie it all together? A strong motif (or two!) may be just what you need.
So what exactly is a motif? (Don’t worry if you’re unsure… it’s not a word that people use a lot and you may have intentionally purged it from your memory after you finished that class in literary analysis. :D)
There are many definitions available for the word “motif.” This one comes from dictionary.com:
“A recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., especially in a literary, artistic, or musical work.”
Motifs differ from symbols in that they recur, weaving back into the story in ways that couldn’t be purely coincidental. This recurrence helps the reader to notice the importance of the motif and to recognize that it has significance beyond its literal meaning.
Likewise, a motif is different from the overall theme of a story. Where the theme is the central or universal idea conveyed by a story, the motifs exist to support or reveal that idea.
Still confusing? Here come the concrete examples!
In George Lucas’s movie Star Wars, (Episode IV, A New Hope) the color of each main character’s clothing serves as a motif. Luke wears all white, as does Leia, suggesting goodness. Darth Vader’s clothing is all black, which contrasts Luke and Leia and suggests the evil in him. Han wears a black vest over a white shirt, which would suggest his ambivalence between good and evil. (These examples might count as symbols if the character wore that color just once, in a key scene. The fact that these clothing colors recur throughout the film makes them a motif.)
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, the weather is a motif. Gatsby’s initial reunion with Daisy occurs in the pouring rain, suggesting sadness and regret. As the sun comes out, their love renews. Gatsby’s confrontation with Tom occurs on the hottest day of the year, suggesting they have each reached the “boiling point,” and his showdown with Wilson occurs on the first day of autumn, which suggests the coming coldness of death.
In Suzanne Collins’s novel The Hunger Games, Roman names are a motif. Cinna, Cato, Portia, Octavia, and Flavia are all names associated with Rome. The name of the country, Panem, is also a common Roman word meaning bread. This motif suggests that the world as we now know it (especially the United States, which in the book collapsed and gave rise to Panem,) could one day see the rise of a new Rome.
In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, hallucinations serve as a motif. Macbeth sees a bloody dagger floating in the air as he is about to kill Duncan. Later, he sees the ghost of his friend Banquo, whose murder he had ordered. Lady Macbeth imagines that there are spots of blood on her hands that she can’t wash off. These hallucinations suggest the destructive power of violence and guilt.
What do you think of motifs? Do you feel they add something to the books you read? Do you think they are worth including in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!