Choose Wisely: Metaphors in Character

peasinapod
photo by katerha

Nothing scotches believability faster than a character who doesn’t sound right. Much of the time these are mistakes of vocabulary, like a third-grader who uses the word “disenfranchised” or a hardened felon who says “Darn tootin’!” But just as important, or even more so, is the question of metaphor.

(As I write about this, I’m going to use “metaphor” as a category that includes both metaphors and similes. The difference between them is a question of grammar, not concept. And although I am without question a grammar stickler, I think dropping the distinction makes sense for exploring their use. Otherwise things get all cluttered up, saying “metaphor/simile” every time, and it gets as messy as a roomful of toddlers who’ve skipped their naps.)

A lot of writers probably come to this realization automatically, but I didn’t. I had to learn it. One summer at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival I went to an Elevenses lecture by Sands Hall. I don’t remember if this was the main focus of her talk, or just one topic among many, but it has stuck with me utterly. She was talking about using two narrators in her book Catching Heaven and that one of the ways she made sure their voices were distinct was that each was using metaphors appropriate to her experience. The sisters had led different lives, so of course when they reached in their minds to compare one thing to another, they were drawing on different pools of knowledge.

My little mind: blown.

And I’ve used this insight in every single piece of fiction I’ve written since (which I can’t say about much writing advice!) Your metaphors have to match your characters. Whether you’re writing in first person or third, historical fiction or sci-fi, war or romance, a character can’t compare something they’re encountering to something they’ve never encountered before. The entire concept of metaphor is based on comparing to something within your experience. It can be easy to lose sight of that when you think of a clever turn of phrase or discover a colloquialism you find entertaining. Personally, I have been dying to use “ugly enough to raise a blister on a washpan” for years, but no character I’ve written so far would say that, and I know not to force it.

Similarly, if your character is using a metaphor from within their realm of experience — which doesn’t necessarily match your experience — it needs to strike the right level of detail. If your character’s a die-hard Giants fan, is he going to say “I felt like a quarterback making a touchdown,” or is he going to say “I felt like Eli Manning at the Super Bowl making that pass to Ahmad Bradshaw”? (But don’t go too far — he probably wouldn’t say “Super Bowl XLVI”, would he? Make sure your characters are still speaking like people, not mouthpieces for research. We call this the Crichton Conundrum.)

So keep a close eye on your metaphors. If you don’t, someone else will, and it might not be until after publication. And that’d make you feel like the kid in the corner in the dunce cap, wouldn’t it?

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About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.

Comments

  1. says

    That’s awesome advice, and it really works. :)
    I guess I’ve done it instinctively (or maybe because I can handöe writing intimate, biased pov, much better than objective descriptions) and it has really brought a great deal of “reality” to the characters and their voices. :)

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  2. says

    Good things to keep in mind! I tend to blunder through and not think about where my metaphors come from and if they truly apply to the character I’m writing – one of my blind spots, perhaps. Well… not any more!

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  3. says

    Good common sense yet so often overlooked or over sophisticated. It sure helps to have an intimate knowledge of your characters, even minor characters with speaking parts.

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  4. says

    One of my teachers used to tell us, before a test, we looked as nervous as long tail cats in a room full of rocking chairs. I’m dying to use that one. Metaphors can be tricky.

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  5. Hilary says

    Interesting advice, it reminds me of an incident from my past.

    I once read that you can tell a lot about a person from their metaphors – whether they are visual or auditory, their interests etc.

    Being an avid people-watcher (aren’t all writers?) I thought it would help pass the time one day at work when we had a “Town Hall” pep-talk from some senior managers. What follows is a true story – I couldn’t make this up.

    So – the first liked motor racing – we’re in the starting gate, we’re changing gear, we don’t want to be held up by pit-stops – and he was a structural engineer – we’ve laid the foundations, we’ll build on it, etc

    The second liked football – setting goals, coaching, star players – and gardening – prepare the ground, sew the seeds, reap the benefits etc

    The third was a wannabe film director – set the scene, actors, focus, spotlight etc.

    The fourth was obviously completely unaware of his own metaphors. While talking about project management procedures, his metaphors told a different story – getting into bed, working with lots of different partners, our hands are tied, fail to reach a climax, knock on the door, policing, stand up and be counted … . I nearly fell off my chair trying not to laugh. I never saw our Quality Manager in the same light again.

    For anyone with a day job – awareness of metaphors can really liven up those boring meetings …
    For anyone giving a talk – be aware!

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    • says

      That’s hilarious, Hilary, and a great amplifier of Jael’s post. But you can’t leave a comment like that and not link your name to social media of some kind. What if some of us would like to connect?

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  6. says

    Excellent points, Jael! Some areas of the world are more blessed with colorful idioms than others. We in the US South grew up in a culture rich with such expressions as “happy as a fed hog in the sunshine” and “nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.” Southerners, however, do not have an exclusive hold on idioms, etc. English, in general, is an unusually rich language. In my opinion, using our idioms, metaphors, and similes appropriately to flesh out our characters is a big part of the fun of creating them.

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    • says

      My personal favorite from the South, though not a metaphor, is “the Devil’s beating his wife” for when it rains while the sun is shining. A rich language indeed!

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  7. Peggy Foster says

    This is a good post and even though it makes common sense a lot of us lose track of it. This is a good thing to keep in mind when writing. Thanks for giving this great advice!

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  8. says

    Great advice! And you’re exactly right. I’ve just written a verse novel in two voices. The characters are from two entirely different cultures, drawing from different experiences and worlds. I believe (I hope!) the metaphors I’ve used reflect their different perspectives.

    Especially when writing multiple viewpoints, this sort of distinction is necessary.

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    • says

      Keeping the two voices distinct is so important in a novel like with more than one POV, so it’s great that you’ve kept a close eye on that aspect.

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  9. says

    Hmmm, never even thought of things in this way before. I’ve always considered myself good at character-development (or told I was anyway) and hope that I am – but I rarely *think* about how and why and so on and so forth, allowing it to happen organically — but, as i go through my latest MS, I’m going to see if I notice anything!

    kewl.

    thanks.

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  10. says

    What a great post! Just one more facet to watch carefully.

    And Hilary — please do something so we can connect with you. I absolutely love that hilarious story.

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  11. says

    I always have to do a readthrough looking for places where my characters can sound more (be more) distinct from each other. Now I’ll keep my eyes peeled for their metaphors. Thanks!

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  12. Ray Pace says

    “And that’d make you feel like the kid in the corner in the dunce cap, wouldn’t it?”

    And which century would we all have to go back to in order to get the point of this metaphor? There’s got to be a better ending for your article than this.

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  13. Judith says

    I love metaphors….always looking for them when I read.
    Years ago in a writing class, we were asked to write an extended metaphor and I did. A friend had recently given birth so that was my ‘trigger’ and somewhere in the news was a story about a volcano erupting. I put the two together and managed a rather high mark that week for my extended metaphor. Copies available upon request.
    Judith

    coopyju@hotmail.com

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  14. says

    I love metaphors, but never really approached them in this way before. Or if I have, I was unaware. Great advice to think about characters’ experiences. I know I often draw metaphors from the setting, which is a fun way to enrich the environment of the story. Thanks for a helpful post.

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  15. says

    Yep, mind blown! Like a few others have commented, I think I have used metaphors correctly on instinct. But reading this makes me wonder (now I’ll have to go back through and check them!), and moving forward I have a new tool to make my characters and their stories even stronger! Thank you!

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  1. […] know this is pretty basic but sometimes we needed to be reminded of the basics. I know I do. Jael McHenry’s blog post at Writer Unboxed struck a note with me and made me think about this. I am worried that sometimes the MCs in the […]

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