Symbols help the reader relate to their environment. Symbols of culture can help the reader understand context for the story's setting. For example, if the author wants to showcase symbols of China, he may include Chinese food, the Ying-Yang symbol, bamboo, martial arts or a unique type of Chinese artistry. Symbols can also represent the time period of a culture. For example, wagons, cowboy hats and six-shooters indicate to the reader that the story is taking place in the old west.
Symbols for Intangible objects
A symbol will often be used as a subtle focal point of attention. For example, throughout a story, a child may always play soccer with her best friend. One day the soccer ball disappears or gets punctured. The author may use the broken ball to symbolize a damaged friendship or a relationship that is coming to an end.
Many symbols are so overt that it is possible to forget that they are even symbols. For example, religious icons, such as a cross or Star of David, represent an entire group of people, a religion and quite possibly many other things. These types of symbols are very obvious and can say much by simply being introduced.
Symbols can also be personal and not universal. The author may include personal symbols or bizarre symbols in a story. A symbol can be whatever an author wishes it to be, and can define any themes or concepts; there are no limits. For example, if a character always thinks of an ostrich whenever she remembers a parent, the ostrich can be seen as a symbol for the parent. It doesn't need to make sense for it to be a symbol.