More on similes, metaphors and symbols
Published: August 27, 2010
More on mining your fiction for rich figurative material
In the October 2010 issue of The Writer, Oregon writer Eric M. Witchey offered a Step by Step process for building fictional characters with simile, metaphor and symbol. Following are some writing exercises from him related to the topic, as well as the entirety of his short story “Brieanna’s Constant,” which is used as a study model in the main article. The science fiction tale originally appeared in the former online magazine Jim Baen’s Universe and was reprinted in the anthology The Best of Jim Baen’s Universe 2006.
Home is where the heart is
1. Create a three-column table.
2. Sit down in the messiest room of your home. Maybe it’s your garage, a kid’s room, an attic, a crawl space. For me, I don’t have to leave my desk.
3. Make a list of objects you see in that room.
4. Make a list of people who might see that room. (Include pets or vermin, if you like.) Make sure your list has at least five people, even if you have to make them up. After all, a lot of writers live alone. If you do have to make up some people, however, you also have to work harder because you’ll need to know a lot about them before you can really do the exercise well.
5. Now, make a list of emotions that is at least as long as the list of people. Be as specific as you can. For instance, everyone would agree that love and hate are emotions, but they’re almost useless for character work—they’re just too vague. Erotic obsession colored by an idealized hope for companionship, though, is much more useful. Social prejudice combined with envy and resentment is also good. One is love. One is hate. The difference is that they are now detailed enough to be emotional states for a character at a moment in a scene. Notice that an emotional state is several emotions and not just one. If the individual emotions that make up the emotional state are apparently at odds, all the better.
6. Now, play a little game. Randomly match an emotion with a character and an object. Then write a couple lines that include a simile or metaphor that effectively enhances the character’s relationship with the object by reinforcing the emotional state. See if you can tell a little story with just a few lines by making good use of these tools. Two examples:
• A doctor’s appointment card + Jerry + social prejudice combined with envy and resentment:
The doctor’s appointment card hung on the bulletin board over his oil-stained desk like the condescending, stone-eyed gargoyles he’d seen on Ivy League cornices. He’d eave the auto shop that had put the gargoyle through med school because he had to—and because his brother was just maybe good enough to save his life.
• 20-sided dice + Bonni + self-congratulatory pride combined with self-deprecating shame:
She towered above the boys. The 20-sided dice were mythic, faceted jewels that had made her a triumphant giantess wading through carnage on the battlefield. She’d had no idea that being the dungeon master for her son and his friends could be so much fun. Then he looked up at her, and his eyes were like mystic pools filled with the shimmering liquid of eternal sadness. She’d killed more than his imaginary character. The jewels became common stones, too heavy for her to hold.
1. Pick a few pages from a favorite book in the genre you most enjoy writing.
2. List every simile and metaphor in those pages.
3. List every character that appears in those pages.
4. For each simile and metaphor, brainstorm a list of attributes the simile or metaphor brings to whatever is associated with it.
5. Write a short description of how the narrative character’s or the point-of-view character’s experience and emotions are revealed by the choice of simile or metaphor.