Latching a narrator onto a single POV has many unintended consequences, and these are unfortunately invisible until they explode in your face, so one can read (or write) texts that should be, in theory, bristling with excitement but, in reality, are dull and shallow. I mentioned a few ways I believe this happens in the linked post above, but one that I think deserves its own post is this: hardly anybody writes similes, analogies, or metaphors anymore, and these are one of the fundamental tools in any writer’s craft.
Why should an over-reliance to Deep POV harm similes and other related figures of speech is easier to understand if one remembers that a consequence of deep POV is the death of the narrator as an independent voice and its transformation into a kind of security camera with no personal style or unique psychology. This may not seem very important because the current popular understanding of fiction writing is that what matters are the characters and protagonists, so it’s important to get “close” to them, but that’s not true. Or, at least, it’s a half-truth that needs important qualifiers. What matters is the narrator.
It’s the narrator, as the writer’s voice, who is having a, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, dialogue with the reader. He is the one who will, or will not, make anything that happens in that piece of fiction interesting. Nothing told in writing is inherently interesting by itself, and this is a critical point for those writing fantasy or sci-fi. It doesn’t matter how cool something looks inside your head; when writing, you have no visual effects, only words. It’s not what you write (the “objective” content), but how. And how is the writer’s job—through the narrator. In theory anyway, a brilliant writer can make going to buy milk sound fascinating, while a bad one can make a heart-stopping adventure sound dull.
If, as usually happens, a too-deep POV ends with a narrator who has no personal voice, who only says how character X goes from point A to B, or does x,y, or z while x-ing something else, and if the emotional life of said character has to be described using a strange, behavioristic language obsessed with body language because apparently telling (not “showing”) how someone feels, explaining it, or speculating about it is forbidden, then it’s only natural that similes should disappear.
After all, saying that someone, “ran along the river like a damned soul fleeing from the Devil” is not anybody’s direct, immediate POV, and it’s certainly not a description of body language or a reference to the observer’s five senses. It’s just something the narrator (who may or may not be close to whoever may or may not be watching that) made up, a comparison between what is being observed and something else. Yet it says a lot more about what is going on than simply stating that someone was running or fleeing, and then attaching one of those boring -ing participles that are all the rage for unfathomable reasons, like “moving his feet at full speed” or “eyes wide with fear,” and so on.
But that’s not how creative and intelligent people think or how they show their unique personalities and interpretation of reality. They use analogies, similes, and so forth. You can’t create good writing by piling up a sequence of stale, impersonal observations about body language. If you do that you will end with unbearable prose and that common problem with contemporary writing: the dancing eyebrows, the narrowing eyes, the clenching fists, and the continually nodding heads.
If you don’t know what I mean, pay more attention the next time you read (or even write) a modern fiction novel and look at how many times the character’s eyebrows, heads, or eyes (or lips) doings are referenced. That’s a consequence of adhering too firmly to a deep POV style of writing: the writer believes he has to relate such facial minutiae to convey the character’s inner life since he has to show, not tell, how the character feels. You can’t just write “He was despondent” or “felt wretched” because that’s more of a conclusion or even an interpretation than an objective observation.
Naturally, losing similes, which are already hard to use even for competent writers, is inevitable. A simile (or worse, a metaphor,) when openly stated, is a brazen declaration of the narrator’s primacy and personal voice. You can’t just write “They scurried away like panicked rats” or “the customers lined up to the bank’s clerk like meek supplicants looking for absolution” and pass it off as an objective ‘showing’ of body language. That’s clearly the narrator talking, giving his colored interpretation of reality, through his eyes and mind, and that seems to be frowned in a lot of today’s writing advise (or, at least, it’s never mentioned)… yet it’s what makes good writing memorable.
Now, keep in mind that nothing I say here goes against the goal of telling someone’s point of view. But unless the narrator openly states he believes something else or contradicts what the character is thinking, that’s usually what a narrative does by implication—readers just end up identifying him with the main character to a lesser or greater degree, especially if he never “hops heads.” And even if you don’t end up identifying the narrator with the main character… why is that supposed to be bad? Still, you can precede similes or comparisons with “he thought that the customers looked like…” but I think that’s a bit cumbersome and I would just omit it.
In any event, the point is that you don’t have to lower yourself to merely write about someone’s sensory perceptions or about his flapping ears or twitching facial muscles. You can show, but also tell; you can explain, speculate, hypothesize, imply, extrapolate, digress, and even make fun of what you’re seeing. In fact, some genres would be impossible (or intolerable) without this type of writing. How can you write something with humor without analogies, comparisons, and similes, without a unique voice that points out, explains, and compares the silly things you are witnessing? How can you write a noir novel without massive deployment of analogies?
There are more practical reasons why you need to start using these figures of speech: it’s one of the best ways for your writing to stand out. In an era of self-publishing, with thousands of new books being added each day to an already over-stuffed market, how is your writing going to be noticeable if it looks like any other, churned by writer’s workshops that all give the same sort of advice?* Despite some claims that Deep POV’s will make your writing “unique,” it won’t. In fact, it can’t. There’s a limited number of ways to describe someone being angry (or cold, or jealous, or whatever) by body language or using the observer’s immediate perceptions; however, there are almost infinite ways to say that someone is angry using figures of speech. And you don’t have to focus only on “X is like Y”, you have as if, as though, as a, similar to, in the manner of, etc. And then you have metaphors, that are even more extreme and can be used without any introduction:
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
(he is obviously not talking about the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation here)
There’s a very limited number of ways to say that someone is afraid by mentioning his quivering upper lip, his pale face, or his shaking legs. But with comparisons, similes, and metaphors, and by being brave enough to, from time to time, realize that you can tell and you don’t have to show anything, you have an almost numberless amount of ways to express your (or the narrator’s) personal take, vision, or interpretation.
PS: As a final note, everything has a downside and quality always goes hand in hand with difficulty. In fact, if you google “fear simile” most of the ones you will find are pretty bad. Finding good and effective comparisons is naturally hard. But at least you should try to use them from time to time if only to have an extra tool to add a bit of variety and your personal touch. The keyword being personal—avoid stale, overused, clichéd similes like… well, like something similar to a plague.
*By noticeable I mean memorable or, in other words, good or, at least, comparetively better. I’m not talking about sales numbers and I will never tell you that what I advise here will make you sell more books. You will write better, though. That may or may not help you sell more.
2 thoughts on “Deep POV shallowness Part 2 : no similes, no metaphors, no style.”
This was so entertaining to read, but also a great relief because I came to you blog by googling, ‘can you use similies in deep POV”, because I’m always struggling with the constraints of it, but love the closes it gives. Thanks for this post.
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