My Superpower is a regular guest column on the Skiffy and Fanty blog where authors and creators tell us about one weird skill, neat trick, highly specialized cybernetic upgrade, or other superpower they have, and how it helped (or hindered!) their creative process as they built their project. Today we welcome Rhiannon Held to talk about how the power of Metaphor relates to Reflected.
I am proud to say that my superpower is the power of METAPHOR. I’ve had it all my life, but never realized it until I started writing and learned to nurture my metaphor in a conscious way to make my novels richer. My newest book, Reflected, has metaphor on a number of different levels, and I’m continually grateful that’s the superpower I received when such things were being handed out.
Now, to forestall the few pedants and people eager to prove they were paying attention in junior high English out there, I’m going to talk about metaphor in a large, umbrella sense. When it comes down to sentence structure, there is indeed a terminology difference between saying “My heart is a lump of coal” and “My heart is like a lump of coal.” The former’s a metaphor, and the latter’s a simile.
As a speculative fiction author, similes are more often what I’m actually putting on the page. In contemporary fiction, you can usually say “She ran in, a puppy on unsteady legs,” without confusion, but toss werewolves into the mix, and you’re much better off saying “She ran in like a puppy on unsteady legs.” Otherwise, you could be speaking literally! The poor reader can’t tell!
I like to talk about metaphor expansively, using it to cover everything from the deep themes (the vampires are a metaphor for the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeois) to small comparisons in the moment (his coffin stood out like a McMansion in a trailer park).
So what makes metaphor a superpower, instead of simply a skill? Well, in my daily life, it’s incredibly useful for successfully communicating with the people around me. Someone doesn’t understand a concept you’re explaining to them? Find a metaphor! Frequently around the office I have to use one to explain why it’s stupid to attach files to intra-office emails when all of our computers have access to the same server. If you wanted to give your roommate a book, would you put his name on it, walk to the post office, pay for postage, and wait a day until they deliver it to him? Or would you stick your head in his door and say “Hey, your book is on the kitchen table”? That’s what I thought! Tell me what folder the file’s in on the server and my inbox will stop hitting its storage limits all the time!
I’ve also found — and this is where my workaday use of metaphors starts to shade into my use of them in writing — that metaphors are unbelievably useful for emotional situations that your listener doesn’t share with you. Maybe your friend has been lucky enough to have never been through a messy breakup and can’t understand why you’re still down weeks later. But you knew they did move around a lot as a child, and you explain that you’re down because missing your ex is a lot like feeling restless at the same time every afternoon you used to have soccer practice after you had to move schools. You can’t concentrate on making new friends and not missing old ones when practice time is so deeply set into your internal routine.
And in many ways, while you may never state it out loud, your characters’ emotional states can function in the same way — in both directions. Your readers have never found their sibling completely drained of blood with bite marks on their neck, but they may have had a relative die from violence, and they can invest that into your character. And then the other way: perhaps your reader has never had a relative die of violence, but they did have someone die of a something like a drug overdose, where blame and guilt can get all tangled up. If vampires are a metaphor for addiction, seeing a character mourning a sibling who died of something so clear-cut as a vampire bite can maybe help the reader straighten out that tangle a little.
In Reflected, and all the books in the Silver series, I use werewolves as a metaphor for feeling like an outsider or immigrant in the dominant culture. Historically, werewolves are used to represent our “animal” side and the dangers of giving in to instincts. I wanted to do something new. My werewolves are a separate species, and can only be born, not turned with a bite. They have their own culture and religion that they have to hide, setting them up for the clash of traditions you follow at home against what the dominant culture is doing all around you as you go to school and work.
New in Reflected, I worked to build metaphors about parenthood and step-parenthood through the Were’s struggle to overcome their low fertility and keep half-human children from accidentally revealing werewolves to the larger world. Hopefully, by putting the emotional turmoil we’d all recognize in werewolf terms, it casts new light on what we thought we knew about that turmoil.
Of course, no matter how awesome the metaphor I think I’m creating, sometimes it won’t work. If you tell someone that X is like Y, and they’ve never experienced Y or have some odd idea of it that doesn’t match what you were assuming…time to start talking about Z! In the end, that’s how I most conceptualize my superpower: not just to create metaphors…but to keep ‘em coming! In my daily life and in my writing, I apply my creativity until understanding has been achieved.
Rhiannon Held is the author of the urban fantasy Silver series from Tor. She lives in Seattle, where she works as an archaeologist for an environmental compliance firm. Working in both archaeology and writing, she’s “lucky” enough to have two sexy careers that don’t make her much money.