What’s Your Dominant Metaphor? Creating Character Voice

2012 Debutante Molly BackesEvery editor in the world will tell you she’s looking for a manuscript with a strong narrative voice, but creating a rich, complex, and believable character voice is easier said than done. Voice isn’t just the way your character speaks – not just her dialogue or diction or syntax. It’s not just the words she uses, whether she speaks entirely in Valley Girl slang or whether she never uses contractions. It’s not even just her tone, whether it’s sarcastic or sympathetic, cynical or optimistic.

Voice isn’t just what your character says, or how she says it. Voice is about the way your character sees the world – what she sees, what she notices, what she dwells on, what she cares about, and how she explains it to herself.

Consider the Familiar

We all know that a metaphor (or simile) is a comparison between two relatively dissimilar things. But have you ever thought about why we use metaphors? It’s not just to pretty up the language or add poetry to our prose. We use metaphors to explain the inexplicable. We compare the unfamiliar to the familiar in order to help make sense of it to ourselves and our audience.

It’s the second half of that equation – the familiar – that matters to us as we think about character building and voice. What is familiar to your character? What is normal for her? A kid from Manhattan and a kid from rural Iowa will have very different ways of describing a Chicago skyscraper. The New Yorker may say, “It’s almost as tall as the Chrysler building,” while the Iowan might say, “It’s twice as tall as the grain elevator in my town.” The way your character compares the unfamiliar to the familiar gives us a wealth of information about her backgrounds, assumptions, and worldview.

Discovering Your Character’s Dominant Metaphor

I have this theory that most people have what I call a “dominant metaphor” – a primary lens through which they view the world – and if you can figure out their dominant metaphor, you can explain anything to them. Often this dominant metaphor has to do with a person’s job or hobby. For instance, one of my closest friends is a musician, and though he knows almost nothing about the publishing industry, I can say, “I’m in the indie-rock phase of my writing career,” and he knows exactly what I mean. Talking to my father, I’ve started countless sentences with, “It’s like in football, when…”. And when I taught middle school, I always tried to give my students examples that related to their lives. “You know how a cellist has to practice scales? And a basketball player has to practice layups? That’s what freewriting is like for writers.”

Consider your own character: does she have a dominant metaphor? Does she have a job, hobby, or obsession through which she filters most of her thinking? If her best friend were trying to explain something to her, would she say, “It’s like in horseback riding, where you can’t just have the fun of riding the horse – you also have to muck out the stall!” or “You know in the Justin Bieber movie, when he has a sore throat and he has to cancel his show now or possibly miss his big show at Madison Square Garden? That’s how I feel!”

Author Joan Bauer is the master of using her character’s dominant metaphors to create a strong character voice. In her novelHope Was Here, the protagonist uses her experiences as a waitress to help explain the world around her. “Now I believe that the way to anyone’s heart is through their stomach, and, my boy, I’m here to tell you, we are in the heart business. We’re going to reach deep past the menu and into the emotional power of food because a person comes back to a restaurant again and again for one reason only – to feed their soul. ” In Rules of the Road, the protagonist works at a shoe store. “I thought of all the places I was going where I had never been, and wondered how I would manage. But when you sell shoes, you learn first-hand about flexibility.”

Exploring The Prism of Character

Bauer’s characters see the world through the dominant metaphor of their jobs as waitress and shoe saleswoman. Their narrative voices are strong, unique, and appealing. But occupation isn’t the only dominant metaphor available to your character.Every character comes from somewhere, and every character has a prism of assumptions — cultural, regional, religious, political, familial, social — and emotions through which she views the world. Her assumptions shape not just her metaphors, but the way she sees, how she speaks, how she reacts, what (and who) she admires, what she loves. Her emotions determine the things she notices and how she processes.

Everything they notice, everything they say, the way they move and how they interact with the setting — it all reveals character.

With each draft, we have to pay close attention to these details, because often they reveal more about our characters than we know ourselves. And if done well, all these tiny details, many of which will go virtually unnoticed by readers, add up to a greater whole — a living, breathing, complicated person with a history and a future, someone who will live on in your reader’s mind long after he finishes your book.

20 thoughts on “What’s Your Dominant Metaphor? Creating Character Voice

  1. Great post, Molly! I love the concept of the dominant metaphor. My mc, Ciel (whose job entails literally becoming other people) would probably have an overriding acting (in the dramatic sense) metaphor going on in her life.

    • Thanks, Linda! I think you could also make the argument for aura adapting itself as Ciel’s dominant metaphor — the lens through which she views relationships & other experiences. It certainly gives her an understanding of post-modernism and the relativity of truth and experience, right?

          • LOL! That depends entirely on how long her adventures continue to entertain readers, I guess.

            But, yeah, I do have her character arc for the series planned. Ciel will grow, and may possibly develop a more philosophical side. If she’s not, yannoh, killed by a bad guy first. 😉

  2. “Voice is about the way your character sees the world”

    THAT sums it up perfectly, Molly. I am loving these tips! Especially the dominant metaphor. I can’t wait to sit down with my current characters and discover THEIRS!

    • Ooh, did I win a prize? 🙂

      The women of LGG have food & New Orleans as their dominant metaphors, don’t you think?

      • Tracie: try and watch the whole episode on hulu. YOU WILL DIE>Alison: I know, the ertnie episode is even funnier.Ms. A: I was a regular watcher, b/c of Sean Hayes. He had so many wonderful moments. Dosweat: I LOVE MOLLY SHANNON. My favorite is Sally O’Malley. How are you doing?

      • You are so lucky to have eachother!! I know you guys never had new fancy cars like the other kids at St Anthony’s, St John’s ,Chaminade, &ASJ, but you all had the BEST bethorr and sisters. Not so bad to come from a BIG family, huh? God has truly blessed Dad&I with 5 of the most wonderful kids ever! Keep up the good work Coll .Godbless..luvu

  3. This is SO true!! My protagonist is a ninja, and his sidekick is a Jesuit priest – and some of the difficulties in their relationship stem from this idea of different lenses and needing to work through understanding how another person thinks. I try very hard to make my metaphors “experientially appropriate” for the characters, and I think it adds so much to a novel when the author can do that well!

      • I never missed an epsiode. I had so many good laughs with my friends on this show. For a while I was Jack and my BFF hag was Karen. “Denied, denied, approved!”And we named our puppies Will and Grace.Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

      • day 9 I had to do some shoppn, held a lot of doors!! Especially for moemmis with strollers.Oh yea, calmed down a NASTY senior citizen on line at The Christmas Tree Shop( Tis the season?!)Made some time to call & finally have a nice long chat with my pal Lisa!Finally found loafers for Daddy that he wanted(exhausting!) Took Kelly to train station early in am(without complaining) in jammies! brrrr ps Thanx for the croissants Colleen! Godbless! luv2all

  4. Molly, you are the fluffy pink frosting that saves the boring vanilla cupcake.

    I love this post. And it comes at the perfect time as I’m in the middle of revisions.

    Thank you,

    Bethan

    • Haha, thank you! That is the nicest… and most delicious… thing anyone’s said to me all week. 🙂

      • For Japan: Free Printables Kim of The TomKat Studio designed these free prtlnabies to help raise funds for disaster relief efforts in Japan. Print them onto sticker paper and punch

    • Hey, I was going to write something else but as I was raideng your post, up pops a comment from you on mine. It’s like Freaky Friday! How funny is that.Yes, I miss that show but they ended it right at the perfect time. Although I wish I was more like Jack, sadly, I’m more like Will. I’m sure you get that.Anyway, thanks for reaching out to me on Twitter. I wonder how much of a mess I’ll make of that… And yes, Jessica is a sweetheart for interviewing me. It really meant a lot. m.

    • Oh, Carole, to think of your sadness bareks my heart. What a wonderful, warm and human soul you are. Like Molly you, too, bring such intimacy and joy to the blogosphere through your photographs and posts. I’ll be thinking of you, and Molly!

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