It is sometimes a wonderful thing when a certain scent whisks us back to our childhood, such as the smell of freshly cut grass, or the hint of lilac on an evening walk. Or maybe we have other memory triggers or associations. Maybe some are culture dependent. For me, the scent of herbs cooking always takes me back to church and the smell of burning incense. Our brain has permanently linked certain events or images together so that one will generate the thought or feeling of the other: a necessary cognitive survival mechanism.
In writing we can also build these associations. We can play on the reader’s association of one particular thing with another, or use certain images or cultural symbols to cause the reader to make connotations in their mind. We do this to manipulate the reader’s emotion or to deepen the visual impact of a scene. These devices, when used in writing are called: similes and metaphors. Both devices use comparisons and help build an image, atmosphere or emotion by causing us to think of one thing in terms of another.
Metaphor is a writing device that strikes straight to the ‘heart’ of the reader’s cognitive centres. In order for metaphor to work, the images or ideas used must cause the reader to make certain connotations in relation to those ideas. For example, you would never use the image of a rabbit to describe a character’s aggressive stance. But you might use the image of a tiger or a thunderstorm.
The use of simile and metaphor is so entrenched in our everyday speech that in many ways our language and understanding of it is reliant on them. I recently used the following term in a sketch of a somewhat archetypical businessman character: ‘time is money’. It got me thinking about metaphor and our use of them in everyday speech and their use in fiction. This concept that time is somehow related to money has become essential to the way we speak of it. We have all used the terms: it’s not WORTH our time, or, I like to SPEND my time, or, I’m COUNTING the minutes/seconds/hours. As writers we can use this aspect of metaphorical language to subtly build on or build up to a metaphor. In my novel, Dawn Solstice, character Sean Kennedy describes the first time he saw the banshee. He builds the image using animal-like references, simile and sounds so that we are left with a somewhat wild and threatening image of the banshee:
“…then one night we were woken by this unmerciful scream outside. I was sure it was some rutting tomcat or the likes and went out to chase the fucker away. That’s when I first seen her, heard her. Nearly lost my hair at the sight of her: ugly fuckin’ thing. I ran back into the house and ashamed as I am to admit it, hid like a bloody cur under the sheets with your mother, until the wretch stopped wailing. Your mother, she saw her too, she knew what it was. She is a superstitious type your mother. Bean sidhe, she called it.”
McEwan is a long hailed expert in the use of metaphor. One of the most impressive examples of his use of this device is in the opening pages of Enduring Love. Here his character Joe, describes a significant event in his life or rather the run up to it. The climax of the opening paragraphs is described as a “pinprick on the time map”, echoing the ancient Roman Philosopher, Marcus Aurelius: Every instant of time is a pinprick in eternity. McEwan uses the pin as a metaphor of a unit of time— a ‘point’ of no return. In the following paragraphs we are treated to some of McEwan’s greatest skills as a writer as he continues to draw out the metaphor by using words that constantly refer to the initial concept. Even sentences that are not directly related to the initial concept echo its meaning. He describes other men running from different ‘points’ in the field, that they were ‘converging’ on the scene (to a central point). McEwan even treats us to a change in perspective by giving us a bird’s eye view where we are told that the characters were ‘tiny’ forms below. Again the word tiny reinforces how minute the event is in the grandness of time. From this perspective we can imagine how tiny the central point would be, we can imagine the pinprick on the time map.
Below, I discuss the image of the ‘heart’ in Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The ‘heart’ symbol is also employed in many metaphors in our everyday speech. If we take the concept of love and use the vehicle ‘heart’ we have all manner of idioms that are common to our language: Our hearts might be ‘filled with love’, or someone may be ‘broken-hearted’ if love does not work out, conversely one might be ‘love-struck’ if shot through the heart by cupid’s arrow. Someone with little feeling might be said to be ‘hard-hearted.’
But what happens when a person associates the image you have used with something completely different or even opposite to what you want to convey? If or when this happens it can lead to confusion. Take this example from among Mantel’s rich prose (Wolf Hall), which is so very, very good I was surprised to see this:
She “looks small and tense as if someone has knitted her and drawn the stitches tight.”
On its own it works but in the context of how Mantel has built up Anne Boleyn’s character, I’m not convinced it does. Anne’s character is somewhat clinical, cold and detached. There are times in Wolf Hall where I conjure up the same image as Nile’s Nerys in the sitcom Frasier: petite, child-like in a mean-spirited kind of way and there is almost something non-human about her. And this was why I found the description above didn’t work for me. The phrase ‘as if someone has knitted her’ made me feel initially that she was soft (wool) so the rest of the image clashed with that thought.
By the way, I am aware that I am criticising a Booker Prize winner and also a book that is all kinds of wonderful but now that I’ve ‘teased’ that one out, let me share with you my favourite simile/metaphor from Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It is from Cromwell’s point of view:
“The heart is like any other organ, you can weigh it on a scale.”
Here Mantel has played on our universal association of the heart with love and made us associate it with meat on a scale. So that we are left thinking that love, like any piece of meat, can be weighed out and has a price. We are also reminded of the much-used metaphor ‘a pound of flesh’ from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Which makes the line of dialogue from Cromwell seem even more cold and Cromwell more mercenary, thus adding further to Cromwell’s character. And this brings me nicely onto my next point – you’d almost think I’d planned this post – metaphor, when used by your characters, is a powerful way to show the reader how your characters view the world.
Here is my character, Robert Asherton, in Becoming Lady Beth. It is before a ball where he knows every mother in the room will be attempting to marry their daughters to him:
“He felt like he was about to enter an arena, an arena filled with lions and he was the bait.”
Here is another example of using metaphor or simile to help in characterisation. This is from earlier in Becoming Lady Beth. Beth is making her debut outing in a carriage on the bumpy roads of Bath. She worries that she will be unable to blend into Regency society:
“She looked at her mother and Harriet sitting across from her; both of them swaying like breeze-blown daisies to the movement of the carriage.”
The carefree and delicate image of the daisies is in direct contrast to Beth’s apparent clumsiness. The image sets out clearly how inadequate she feels in this new world.
Love them or hate them metaphors and similes are here to stay. Even critics and writers who claim to despise metaphor will find themselves unable to completely obliterate them from their prose. Metaphor is essential to how we communicate and personally, a great metaphor in fiction can still ‘take my breath away.’ Metaphorically speaking, of course.