Like the habañera
If you’re writing fiction, you need to use metaphors and similes. Why? Because you need to develop memorable characters, characters that your readers can hardly wait to tell their friends about. “You’ve got to read this book. You’ll (love, hate, laugh at, cry about, want to marry, want to kill—pick one) this character (supply name here).”
So, what do I mean by metaphors and similes in fiction?
“John had big ears.” That’s not going to make John memorable. “John had large ears.” Nope. No better. “John had huge ears.” A tiny bit better. “John’s ears looked like weather balloons attached to his head.” That’s a simile – comparing two things which are dissimilar items, such as comparing ears to weather balloons, and using the word “like” or “as.” Which description are you going to remember? Sure, it’s a gross exaggeration, but it gets the idea across and in a way that will be remembered.
“Mano’s hand was a catcher’s mitt.”
That is a metaphor -- the comparison of two things that are in general not alike, without
using “like” or “as.” The reader knows this guy didn’t really have a catcher’s mitt for a hand. But the reader knows very clearly, this guy had big hands, exceptionally big hands, beefy hands. Your reader will remember that feature about him. You, the author, can use that fact later in the book to good advantage. And guess what? The reader will remember.
“Her eyes were like sapphires cut to catch the light and sparkle.” Simile. (Her eyes were like…) “His eyes were lasers, the kind that cut through steel.” Metaphor. (His eyes were …) “He was only five feet tall, but his feet were as big as a seven-foot giant’s.” Simile.
In my latest mystery Over My Dead Body, I say, " ... Syd’s small, frame house, like a giant, square tumbleweed." Simile. In my book A Ton of Gold, I describe a woman's hair, " black and shiny as obsidian." Simile.
Can you overdo the use of metaphor and simile? You most certainly can. They should be like the habañera: not used on everything, and not used too much. (Simile.)
Remember, one of your goals is to develop memorable characters. Similes and metaphors can help make a character memorable.
James R. Callan is a multi-published author in fiction and non-fiction. He regularly gives workshops on various aspects of writing at conferences across Texas, Mexico and, and online.
Cleansed by Fire and Over My Dead Body are available as Audio books, with five-time Emmy Award winner Jonathan Mumm narrating each book. To hear a sample of Cleansed by Fire just click here, and click on "Play Audio Sample". To hear a sample of Over My Dead Body just click here, and then click on "Play Audio Sample"