An allegory is a writing technique where either the character or entire story represents a bigger idea. When the story itself is used to represent a different situation or idea, the allegory can be considered a type of symbolism or an extended metaphor. In other words, a comparison is made between the fictional situation and a real one.
One of the most famous examples of this method is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In this story, Orwell deliberately created a situation between the farm animals and the farmer that mirrored the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the subsequent era of Stalinism. Tsar Nicholas II became the farmer, Mr. Jones. The pigs take the role of the revolutionary leaders who claimed to serve the whole and subsequently took power for themselves. The other animals become the workers and regular people whose lives were supposed to improve and either were taken or left unchanged.
Since Orwell wrote this book with this comparison in mind, the historical events and the fictional plot parallel each other quite clearly. Notice that the actions and behaviors are the parts that mimic real life. The characters do not need to look like the real figures so long as the actions are recognizably similar. If you would like to write a story that sends a strong message about an idea or political situation without writing about it directly, this is a good book to read and study.
The other type of allegory is more direct since the characters are generally named for the ideas they represent. Those who made it through literature and theatre history classes may relate this type of allegory with medieval morality plays such as Everyman where characters have names like Death, Fellowship, and Good Deeds. Others might take the association a step further to commedia dell’arte where characters in the play represent both an individual and a stock character (a certain type).
Although less common than it once was, this type of character can still be very useful today. The added meaning behind the character’s words can make them humorous or add a commentary on the bigger idea. The best examples tend to do both.
Terry Prachett used this method very effectively in his Discworld books. His repeating character, Death, is very much an individual. Death is mild-mannered, curious, and sometimes makes foolish choices or shows ignorance, so many of the scenes with Death are humorous or lighthearted. At the same time, the way Death interacts with the world and other characters provides a perspective on the process of dying in relation to the real world. The combination means that each scene with Death has layers of meaning.
In this moment, the reader gets a conversation between Tiffany and Death that gives the immediate information regarding to Tiffany’s situation and what she needs to do to get out of it and go home. The same conversation provides worldbuilding (rules about death), a commentary of coming back from death (a way in), and a comparison of dying to sleep. It also sets up Death as a guide or polite host rather than an adversary. That only covers some of the most obvious layers of the scene. I’m sure you can think of more.
Whether you use this method, the first method, or both to create your allegory, you’ll be adding depth and meaning to your story. Since layers of meaning are part of what strengthens a story, gives it power, and makes it more memorable, what more could an author ask?