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Language and metaphor, how they work in our daily life and in our writing

The next time you read through your daily writings, blog posts, and/or journal entries, take a look at your use of metaphors. You may think you’re simply dressing up the writing or finding an easier way of capturing something you’re trying to say, but often metaphors take on a window-to-the-soul aspect. They reveal facets of how you may view yourself, others, your surroundings, and the relationships existing between them all.

For fiction writers who seek to learn as much as they can about their characters, finding those window-to-soul portals can be illuminating. For bloggers, they may discover their writing is more revelatory than they imagined.

Our use of language defines us. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in Metaphors We Live by, detail how our use of language, and in particular metaphors, can teach us much about what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Lakoff and Johnson say we tend to have an operating principle or personal law at our core, and we adopt specific metaphors that guide our daily actions, thoughts, and beliefs. They are reflected in our daily conversation. Suppose your core metaphor is your belief that argument is war. You might say things like:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument.
You disagree? Okay, shoot.
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all my arguments.

While reading Metaphors We Live by, I examined how I viewed my writing process and found quite a constricting view: I never had time; I had to push to get the work out, etc., etc. Clearly word choices reflected a negative outlook on the process.

Then I wondered whether the idea of a personal law or a defining metaphor could be applied to character development. Could I use metaphors to build integrity and unity in the presentation of the character on the page? Could metaphors help define my characters and their lives? After all, writers thrust their characters into situations designed to produce pressure from a variety of sources so they can see how the character responds. For the reader, it is the character’s response that defines him or her. The character responds, decisions are made, and the plot moves forward. The character’s response is often shaped by their background, experiences, etc. and is revealed in dialogue–in their use of language.

If you have a character who views life as a battle, this character is always in a war metaphor. Confrontation is usually the preferred way to handle problems. “War words” pepper their language. If you have a character who adopts “time is money,” their dialogue is spent with sayings like you’re wasting my time, this gadget will save you money, I don’t have the time to give, I’ve invested a lot of time in her, he’s living on borrowed time, etc.

Using metaphors has proven to be a useful tool to appropriate character dialogue and character development. It has helped me determine the world views of my characters and has led me to further ways of demonstrating those views in dialogue and action rather than telling. By identifying my personal metaphors, I uncovered a tight definition of the writing process that inhibited my growth and production. If the study of my own use of language could identify potentially destructive core beliefs, then would it be possible to change my core belief through language? Yes, says Lakoff and Johnson.

Following their suggestions, I decided to replace the current metaphors and move from a constricting, narrow, hard process to one that flowed, expanded and continued to broaden, ever-widening like a river flowing out to sea. The result? Well, it took a bit of time, but eventually the tension lessened and the pages increased. Now, when I sit down to write the words flow, the pages stream forth, and the experience is relaxing. I’m carried downstream on a current of words.

What do your metaphors say about you?

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  • susan

    Very interesting points made. Just recently discovered my own leanings toward nature in describing the flow of life and things around me. I have without realizing it fully, allowed my writing to remain in that style and do indeed feel not only the writing, but the perceptions take on that mode. It flows smoothly–like a river (sorry). Will look into Metaphors We Live By. Thanks!

  • Craig

    Interesting. If you used a character based on a real life model in fiction, you would have (hopefully) some ready-made metaphors. And since you even changed yourself using metaphor, you could use your “old self” as a character now, and do it from a second point of view.

  • JZ

    I reserve the right to continue to think about this. Very interesting. As I read your entry on metaphors, I began to see some of my own personal metaphors. (It may be that my choice of the word “see” in realizing my personal metaphors, is related to my visual arts.)
    Craig’s slant on using your metaphors in writing, “old self,” is very interesting. In fact, come to think of it, I have used my childhood self in some of my stories. Maybe that’s a metaphor in itself.

  • Eli

    Much food for thought here. OK, using that one is interesting in itself since I’m on Weight Watchers at the moment.
    Better yet, I’m going to go through my latest ms. to check out the metaphors I’m using with my hero.
    Thanks for the prod.

  • Bill

    Thanks. This is the most thought-stimulating item I’ve read about writing in a while. My own use of language suggests I view the world as uncertain – such as the use of the word “suggests,” which shows a reluctance to be completely committed to the statement.
    It’s also curious that in my fiction I tend to use similes quite a bit but don’t use many metaphors … whatever that may mean.

  • Vikk

    Wow! I’m glad to see all the comment this post generated. Hope you let us know how the metaphors work if you do any character work or try changing some of your own.
    Thanks to everyone for stopping by and taking the time to read my blog. Special thanks to all who leave comments. It makes my day!

  • David St Lawrence

    Another thought-provoking post.
    Your blog is a treasure store of information for the aspiring writer.

  • Wayne Hurlbert

    Vikk, there is simply so much great information on writing to be found on your blog. It’s a wonderful resource for writers to help hone their skills, employing your generous advice and assistance. A blog for an author, like yourself,is an ideal vehicle to connect with other writers and your reading public. Keep up the great work!

  • Blogcritics

    Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

    “metaphors take on a window-to-the-soul aspect. They reveal facets of how you may view yourself, others, your surroundings….”