The word “metaphor” comes from two Greek words – meta (over, across) and pherein (to carry or bear) — and literally means “to carry over” or “to transfer”. Dr. Daniel McInerny describes metaphor as the desire to illuminate the perception of one thing by juxtaposing it to some other.” (1)
When we use metaphor, we convey the meaning of one thing by using the meaning of another thing. For example, Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” In this sentence, the great Bard of Avon compares his beloved to a summer day–a day of beauty and warmth.
Aristotle considered metaphor the greatest of all literary devices, perhaps because the use of metaphor requires the ability to discover similarity in things that are intrinsically different. At the same time, the use of metaphor requires the ability to discover those differences that reduce a thing to its essence.
Metaphor is a very effective literary device in fiction writing. Metaphor serves to create images that juxtapose differences and use one thing to illuminate another. In illuminating differences, metaphor serves to reveal the essence of the two things being compared. In a story, this type of comparison illuminates the essential nature of a character. When, for instance, I write “The beggar sat on the sidewalk, a king holding court:”, I am juxtaposing two people highly unlikely to be found together: a beggar and a king. Yet, the very act of comparing two totally different things creates a metaphor that brings out the essence of my beggar character.
Metaphor is a wonderful tool in the fiction writer’s arsenal. Use it well and it will add a new dimension of life to your stories.
(1) McInerny, Daniel. “How to Use Metaphor to Enrich Your Stories.” http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog/how-to-use-metaphor-to-enrich-your-stories