Can you see what I see? Visualization Using Props, Symbols, and Motifs

Last week on the Femmes, Janet blogged about being a “Fan Girl” or “Fan Boy”. Character visualization can help us strengthen our writing, by picturing what the hero, heroine, or even secondary characters look like. When I write, I try to put myself in my heroine or hero’s shoes—depending on whose POV I’m in. What do they see, hear, smell, taste, feel? Combining all these elements is an important aspect that brings depth into your story and evokes an emotional pull to the characters. It’s what makes us cry when something traumatizing happens or when the H/H finally make love. Even when the H/H kicks the bad guy’s ass.

What are some of the elements used in painting this picture and drawing out this emotion?


Do your characters have a favorite shirt or maybe a tattoo on their back? Something that distinguishes them from the other characters and defines them, uniquely? In my current WIP, my heroine, Kate, has a penchant for four-inch heels. For her, the extra height compensates for her vertical challenge and makes her feel on equal level as others around her. However, for the hero, they’re a serious turn-on.

“Edward glanced down at the high-heeled black leather boots Kate wore. They came up to just under her knee and hugged her calf like a second skin. As usual, the heel was close to four inches, and while looking at them made the blood rush to his groin, they didn’t seem practical for an afternoon of baking cookies.” (Excerpt from Love’s Second Chance by Maria K. Alexander)


An object can also be used to symbolize something important in the story. In my current WIP, the bad guy stalks the heroine and leaves dead roses as his calling card. All she needs to do is see it to know he’s been there or is watching her. In this case, the symbol is used as a way to intimidate the heroine, along with send her a message—I’m waiting for you.

Symbols can also be used as a way of outwardly expressing a person’s state of mind or the evolution of the character. In Carly Phillips book, Sealed with a Kiss, Molly is known for her fashion sense and bold colors. When the hero sees her at the start of the book, gone is the vibrant woman he remembered from a year past.

“…he realized that the woman who dressed for maximum impact was nowhere to be seen. Sure, she’d been in her red cowboy boots the day she’d come to see him, but he’d noted her bland-colored top then, and taking in her outfit now, he wasn’t the only one who’d changed. (Excerpt from Sealed with a Kiss by Carly Phillips)

By the end of the book, we know Molly has resolved her issues and is back to her old self when she shows up at the hero’s office wearing a colorful shirt and her red cowboy boots.


A motif is a recurring object or theme throughout the story. Sometimes, it can be used along with a symbol to convey something important to the story. I found a blog below that explains more about motifs. It gives an example of the ring in Lord of the Rings serving as a motif representing the battle between good and evil.

In the Harry Potter series, I think the Sorting Hat is a symbol that represents the choice of good over evil. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Sorting Hat gives Harry the option of picking Gryffindor or Slytherin as his house. In the Chamber of Secrets, the hat is brought by Fawkes and carries the sword of Godric Gryffindor, and is by Harry to destroy the Basilisk. In Deathly Hallows, the hat is presented to Neville, again carrying Gryffindor’s sword that is used to kill Nagini.

These tools can be useful in deepening the intimacy between the reader and the characters. Maybe the reader can relate to the heroine who has a short fuse and uses her anger as a way to deflect dealing with a situation. Or maybe the motif is used to symbolize something about the story itself. In one of my favorite books, Welcome to Temptation, by the fabulous Jennifer Crusie, the water tower painted to resemble a phallus foreshadows the questionable issues that will be posed in the story about a pornographic movie being filmed in the town.

How about you? What types of props, symbols, or motifs have you used in your books or encountered in books you’ve read? Post your examples and be qualified to win a box of sea salt caramels. Comment each week this month to increase your chance to win.

Happy writing!


Leave a comment


  1. Great post! I love the water tower in WTT. The best storytellers do this seamlessly, sort of like subliminal messages in advertising.

  2. Lori

     /  January 16, 2012


    Great post! I found pictures of models that are perfect fits for my hero and heroine. One thing I never thought about though was looking for a picture of the hero and heroine together to see how they look as a couple. Just found them last night together. The picture sold me that they would be a cute couple.
    Happy writing.

    • Hi Lori,

      I like looking for my hero’s picture more so than the heroine (hmmm…wonder why)! Seriously, I have a Word file that I store various pictures for my story. Not in any order, just random pictures. I wanted to get the color/style of my current heroine’s hair right, so I have headshots for that. I had a lot of fun searching for wedding dresses for both my books.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  3. I love that water tower in Welcome to Temptation, too. And what a welcome! Smart, interesting post, Maria. Thanks for sharing.

  4. hieubietusa

     /  January 16, 2012

    This was a great article…and I do have a habit of having something special for a main character or another important person in the story. I layer it throughout. I feel it develops a closeness between the character and reader. Clothing, certain word or even in one of my tales “dog tags.”
    However, after reading…”blood rush to his groin,” I blacked out.

    Good observation

    • Hi Joe,
      There’s lots of fun things you can do to build the bond between the characters. It’s fun to experiment. I hope you’ve recovered after the black out 🙂

  5. Janet Pepsin

     /  January 17, 2012

    Love this post, Maria! Visualization, symbols, props…all add relatability to the heroine or hero, or to the situation. Kathleen Long does this so well with Chasing Rainbows…the high sexy boots, the glowering mall securitiy guard. After the first scene with the security guard, every time her heroine goes to the mall, you’re just waiting with dread for the security guard to appear.

    When Bernie puts on those sexy boots, you just know she is trying to tap into her inner bodaciousness, and draw herself out of her funk. It’s like she’s challenging the world to deal her another blow!

    • Hi Janet,

      I love high boots. There’s something about them that makes me feel…bold, sexy…maybe a little daring. I have Kathleen’s book on my Nook. Based on your description above, I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks for sharing!


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