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Making Comparisons—Simile and Metaphor in Fiction

June 6, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 6, 2012

Simile and metaphor are figures of speech, phrases given new meaning because the words are being used in an unusual or non-literal way. 

They are often found in poetry, but they can be both beautiful and powerful when used in fiction.

A quick review—

A simile is a comparison between things. The words like or as are often part of the simile. The comparison is clearly stated, but there is no assertion that one of the things is the other.

Her tenderness fell on me like the first rain of the season.

The baby’s cry was as loud as a siren.

A metaphor is a comparison that asserts that one of the things being compared is the other thing, even though we know that such is not literally true.

My lover is a god, invincible and powerful.

Cancer was a prison, holding her in isolation.

We could go into more detail, look at other figures of speech, but my purpose here is not to define simile and metaphor, but to suggest ways to use them in your stories.

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Simile and metaphor are tools. They can be used to create humorous moments or tender moments. They can affect tone. Their use can reveal character.

A character given to the poetic in word or thought is not the same kind of character who doesn’t use such a device. Figures of speech may reveal a character as clever or educated or funny or as a man who tries too hard to impress.

He may be a man who struggles to describe his emotions, his thoughts, even other people. He may find it easier (or simply faster) to compare his wife to an overhead light—easily turned both on and off—than to explain the nuances of her behavior.

Such an explanation may be all the story needs as well; often the instant image can convey more than two or three sentences of explanation. But story isn’t only instant pictures; sometimes readers need it all spelled out. We sometimes want to take the long way around to reach the point.

Metaphor can infuse a moment with clarity or cover it with a veil of uncertainty.

Comparisons can help us see. Maybe see in a new way or from a different viewpoint.

Using simile and metaphor is a way to bring something different to story and character, something that differs from straightforward narration.

But while figures of speech can add to story, they can also smother. Or distract. Or turn the reader away from character and action.

Something I’ve seen recently, in both manuscripts and published books, is an overabundance of comparisons. They seem to be used as substitutes for regular narrative, to be shortcuts when the writer doesn’t want to show what’s happening or what a character feels about that something that’s happening.

When simile or metaphor are used too often, the phrases draw attention not only to themselves, but to the writer behind them. They also serve to distance readers from unfolding events.

When we notice striking metaphors, we’re no longer involved with the story. Rather than being enthralled by the story on the page, we become aware of the words on the page.

If there are a lot of metaphors or similes in one story, they are going to stand out and especially so if they’re not apt for the moment or character.

A few perfect metaphors scattered through a story reveal the character who uses them and can layer emotion or feeling to the tone of a story. A few perfect metaphors on every page shines a spotlight on the writer.

Tips for simile and metaphor—

~  Make them match the character who relates them.

Use figures of speech to reveal the wry or witty side of a character, even if the character only shares those wry thoughts with the reader. Thus a character may think what he’d never say, maybe because speaking his thoughts would get him fired or arrested or divorced.

On the other hand, he might speak exactly what he thinks. He may tell everyone in pithy language precisely what his wife is like or what he thinks of his firm’s managing partners.

Choosing one option over the other creates a different kind of story.

Make sure your similes and metaphors sound like the character who uses them and not like you or a student in an MFA program. Give your characters comparisons that fit their backgrounds and experiences and education levels.

~  Have them fit the emotion of the scene.

To lighten a scene, consider including a humorous simile. But don’t include one if the scene shouldn’t be humorous. Yet, if a character is never in tune with what’s happening around him, you could have him spouting an inappropriate metaphor that shows just how out of touch he is.

If a character is overcome by the splendor of a scene, have him use a metaphor to describe some element of that splendor.

~  Make sure not all characters use comparisons or that they don’t all use them well—not everyone thinks in metaphor. Use figures of speech to differentiate your characters, not to make them sound alike.

~  Use metaphor and simile when an instant word picture is needed.

If you need a quick character or setting description, consider simile or metaphor for that instant connection for the reader.

~  Use them at the appropriate time.

If a character is in a car chase, he might well think of the driver he’s chasing as a backstreet Mario Andretti. If, however, a character is hanging by his fingertips over a cliff, he’s probably not going to wax poetic over the picture-perfect day or say the storm clouds tumble across the sky like crazed Cirque du Soleil acrobats.

~  Consider giving the viewpoint character who thinks in simile or metaphor the opportunity to speak in simile or metaphor.

Let other characters respond to the comparisons a character makes. If they’re always only in his head, other characters can’t react to them. Thus a source of character interaction is cut off.

~  Create your own comparisons.

Clichés  can easily sneak in through simile and metaphor. Create your own comparisons instead, using the character’s background and personality, the emotion of the moment, the unfolding events, and the setting. Let your figures of speech be yours and your characters’ rather than the words of any and every character.

~  Use comparisons that the character would realistically use.

A man who’s unfamiliar with Pisces 3—be it distant planet or a biker bar—shouldn’t be comparing a friend to those who frequent the place. If he wouldn’t understand the comparison or some of the words in it, he shouldn’t be using it.

Does everyone know what black as pitch means? No, not every person in every time period and world would have heard of pitch.

Now, if your character’s trying to show off, trying to fit in by using words he’s heard others say, even when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that’s a different issue. But if he’s unfamiliar with something, he can’t use words he wouldn’t know in his description of something or someone else.

~  Don’t overuse the device.

Anything used too often is noticeable and can pull readers out of the fiction. Write creatively, of course, but don’t draw attention to the mechanics.

How often is too often? That’s going to depend on the length of the story, the number of similes and metaphors you use, the variety of wording you give them, and their appropriateness for scene and story.

As a simple check, do a word search for like and as. See which uses of the two words are in similes. If you find several bunched together, consider tossing a few or moving them somewhere else.

Or ask a friend, your critique partner, or a beta reader if you’ve included too many. 

No matter what it is or how well it’s written, you don’t want any one element to overwhelm or overshadow the others.

~  Don’t let clever phrases play the starring role in your fiction.

Story is about someone doing something or having something done to him. Story uses great writing, but the focus of a story is not that great writing. That is, readers come to story to see what happens to a character; they don’t read looking for great phrases (though they may quite well expect them).

If you think a metaphor is an especially clever bit of writing, consider cutting it. And when you decide you should keep it because it’s really danged witty, thank you very much, rethink your decision. If readers will be stopped by the beauty or brilliance of a phrase, it just might not belong in your story.

If a figure of speech fits so well that readers are drawn deeper into the fiction because of it, it’s a keeper. If a figure of speech stands out so much that the reader is halted, that figure of speech needs some work.

Phrasing that’s creative and clever and awesome that doesn’t fit is, at its simplest, still something that doesn’t fit.

~  Don’t feel you must use comparisons.

Both simile and metaphor can enhance fiction of any genre, but don’t feel you must use both or either in your projects. These writing tools are strictly optional. Try creating a few metaphors in the words of your protagonist or one or two humorous similes in the words of your antagonist. You may surprise yourself with some truly apt phrasings.

But don’t think you must include either. This one’s entirely up to you.

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If you do use simile and metaphor, make them story- and character-appropriate. Make sure they also fit your genre and your story’s setting.

Have fun with them, but don’t let them overwhelm the narration or the dialogue or the simple depiction of action.

Write creatively but remember story.

Write engrossing fiction.

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2 Responses to “Making Comparisons—Simile and Metaphor in Fiction”

  1. It’s darned hard to kill those babies, but I’m sure you’re right, that if something is that brilliant, it will distract from the story. That’s a hard lesson. Thank you so much for this post.

  2. Priscelle, it is hard to toss out the good stuff because we so much want to include great writing in our stories. But if a phrase is distracting, it’s distracting.

    Glad you liked the article.