How to Use Metaphor to Support Your Character’s Arc

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From the stories we tell to the way we grasp abstract concepts, figurative language is an integral part of the human experience. We equate objects to one another, changing an emotional struggle to an injured bird. It’s something we do in our own lives, and in the lives of our characters. So when we’re writing deep in the psyche of our protagonist, viewing the story from their perspective, why not manipulate the figurative language we include to better reflect their personal journeys?

One way to subtly show your readers the evolution of your character is to theme the metaphors used in their POV narrative. Using this method, we can dive even deeper into Deep POV, show your character’s motivations and personality, as well as show their evolution over the course of the story.

 

 BUT WAIT! WHAT’S DEEP POV?

A lot of bloggers have talked about what deep point of view (POV) is, so I’ll summarize. Deep POV is a third person narrative that follows one character through a story in such an intimate way that we experience the emotions and motives along with the character in real time. That is, we’re never told how someone feels, what they think, where they look—we simply do all of those things along with the character as the events unfold.

If you want to read more about Deep POV, I recommend reading this article from The Editor’s Blog. Good? Alright. Let’s dive in to metaphors and character arcs.

SHOWS THE CHARACTER’S MOTIVATIONS AND PERSONALITY

You tend to notice the things that interest you—right? A painter notices color, thinks about what kind of brush strokes would be needed to replicate the clouds at sunset, compares his failed love life to a ruined watercolor. Likewise, you think about things in terms you understand. I, for one, am not a car person. That would be my husband. I would never liken thunder to an engine’s purr, or think of my overburden schedule as a racecar about to blow a tire—but my husband might. By intentionally theming the metaphors used in your narration, you reveal more about the character’s internal desires, preferences, and personality without explicitly stating it.

Back to that painter we were talking about. If he were to, say, be considering murdering his wife’s secret lover, he could see the paint “bleeding” down the canvas after he applies too much. It’s a subconscious slip of the tongue, and a great indicator to the reader about the painter’s ulterior motives.

Now, this is a technique that, like most tools, will fail if overused. Make the metaphors subtle, sprinkle them across other, more generic ones. Not generic as in cliché, but things like nature, work, and relationships are fodder everyone can relate to. The goal as a writer is to always have your prose draw readers further in to your story, not pull them out.

 

SHOWS THE EVOLUTION OF THE CHARACTER

As a person grows, their interests and outlook on life change. I was obsessed with dragons and medieval France as a child. I got a fair amount of teasing for it in elementary school. But now, my interests have shifted. I’d still love to time travel to 14th century Normandy, and I’d never turn down a chance to pet a dragon, but those are in the back of my mind now. Today, I’m focused more on tending my garden, painting landscapes, and researching the industrial revolution. I no longer think in terms of That cliffside is huge! I bet a wyvern could nest up there, but more like, I bet the sunrise looks beautiful tossed against that stone. My metaphors have changed.

By slowly shifting the theme of metaphor in your POV’s narration, you support and underline the larger arc your character is undergoing. In other words, as your character changes, so does his worldview.

George R.R. Martin does this with his POV characters in Game of Thrones. I feel like I reference this series a lot, but of all the examples that come to mind I believe this is the most widely read. His character Bran starts the series off dreaming of becoming a knight, and as a result a lot of the metaphors used in the prose have to do with the military. As the series moves on, Bran moves away from his dreams of becoming a knight to . . . other things (no spoilers). As a result, the metaphors used in the narration of his chapters gradually shift from militant to natural, showing the character’s evolution in the series. His sister Sansa, on the other hand, starts the series enamored with tales of gallantry, and thus her metaphors take on a more fairy tale quality. But as she learns that the world is a lot darker than she once thought, the fairy tales come to her mind less frequently, and when they do it’s with bitterness and biting irony.

Metaphors go hand in hand with your character’s worldview and personality. As you construct their stories, be sure to tell it through their eyes—and abstractions.

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