We’ve all seen them. Maybe we’ve even been the culprit who wrote or otherwise used them. ‘Pretty as a picture’, ‘soft as a bunny’, ‘light as a feather’ or ‘big as a bear’.
While all of those do accurately convey a mental image, they have become overused and dull. But sometimes you want to compare things. You can say something is black, but if something is ‘black as the darkest night’, a reader will better connect to that mental image.
So, how do you avoid falling into the overly-familiar simile trap?
One way is to consider who your characters are. If a guy lives, breathes and works as a football player, instead of his describing someone as ‘big as a bear’, he could say they were ‘as enormous as the most intimidating defensive tackle’. That would be a mental connection he would readily make. The same holds true for other characters: a quilter, a bookworm, a fisherman, a stamp collector. Each would tend to think in terms of their hobby/profession/interest, and make comparisons accordingly. Most of us would not compare someone large to a defensive tackle; it’s simply not the first idea that would come to our minds. But characters are individuals, just as people are. Sports aficionados tend to speak with sports references: the ‘game of life’, a ‘team effort’. A quilter, though, in describing a group effort, might refer to them as ‘working as efficiently as a quilting circle’.
Hopefully, each of your characters has their own individual interests that play into the way they experience the world around them. Genealogists perk up at the sight of a cemetery while most others would drive right by without much notice. A fisherman is possibly eyeballing every body of water as a potential fishing spot. Use those details to give your story depth and interest. Such things can create conflict between characters: the husband reluctantly stops at a cemetery so his wife can walk around, but spots a nearby stream and wanders over to check out the prospects while he waits. Or they argue and don’t stop at all.
Interests and experience will drive everything about your character – what they say, what they do, how they react. And that’s a good thing. It’s what makes them different from each other. Can you imagine reading a story where everyone is exactly the same: they look the same, they talk the same, they have the same interests? In that scenario, it’s going to be pretty hard to come up with a compelling to story to tell about them (unless they’re the Stepford Wives).
So, next time you want to make a comparison, look a little deeper than the obvious ones. ‘Soft as a bunny’ or ‘soft as the whisps of hair on a newborn baby’? ‘Pretty as a picture’ or ‘pretty as the first bud of spring’? Children running through the house ‘like a herd of elephants’ or ‘like the bulls at Pamplona’?
Which pulls you into the story more? Which would you rather read?
Definition of simile
- : a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses) — compare metaphor
simile vs. metaphor
Many people have trouble distinguishing between simile and metaphor. A glance at their Latin and Greek roots offers a simple way of telling these two closely-related figures of speech apart. Simile comes from the Latin word similis (meaning “similar, like”), which seems fitting, since the comparison indicated by a simile will typically contain the words as or like. Metaphor, on the other hand, comes from the Greek word metapherein (“to transfer”), which is also fitting, since a metaphor is used in place of something. “My love is like a red, red rose” is a simile, and “love is a rose” is a metaphor.