Metaphors are a subject close to my heart. I binge on them, both in writing and speaking, and many is the time when my friends haven’t the faintest what I’m on about.
But metaphors can be pure gold dust in a story, so long as you rein yourself in. ‘Metaphor’ is made up of two ancient Greek words that mean, respectively, ‘Over/across’ and ‘carry/bear’. One can understand from that that they are things that can carry something across. And, perhaps, can also be overbearing!
To push this image further, metaphors are a kind of machinery – I’ve come to think of them as gears – that can carry loads that are too heavy for literal language. Voila, metaphor right there. Since much of what I write is a form of fantasy, I need to use these higher gears rather a lot. How do you describe, for example, what it’s like to have invisible whiskers? How do you imagine having reflexes like a cat’s? How do you convey the experience of being a dolphin and seeing the world with sound? (Little teaser there…). You use metaphors.
Sometimes I think I go over the top. But used with restraint, metaphors can serve the same function as music on a film soundtrack. I can’t arrange for day-of-wrath choirs to sing over the climax of my action adventure, but with a few choice startling images I can jolly well have a go. It costs less, too.
And consider this. In the end, ALL words are metaphors. No word is literally the thing it represents. All are just vehicles that ‘carry across’. I think that the difference between ‘ordinary’ words and the ones we choose to call metaphors, is that metaphors are the experiments, the seedlings, the daringly floated possibilities. And sometimes, further down the line, they take root, so that we no longer think of them as metaphors, but part of the language.
Isn’t language magical? It literally is.