writing technique

The Monstrous and the Metaphorical

Last time we met like this, I was talking about genre and my own discomfort with trying to pigeonhole my own work. So, how do I classify my books? Faced with the dreaded dropdown dilemma, what genre do I choose?

Given the choice, I usually opt for the term paranormal. It’s a fairly nonspecific label, but it signals that some non-real stuff is going to happen. Flying carpets, magical orbs, sentient specks of intelligent stardust, pocket universes—stuff like that. In every other way, the narrative is going to be realistic and mostly follow the rules of the conventional universe, but bits and pieces of other realities are going to invade our normal space. Hence, paranormal.

What I’m really talking about here is a literary device that is often used in the genres of fantasy, magical realism, horror, and science fiction. Call it metaphor made flesh.

This is not a new idea. When Gregor Samsa—lost in a drab life and a nothing job, unappreciated by his parents and his employer—wakes up to find that he has been transformed into a giant bug, he is the literal embodiment of a “I’m a worthless insect” metaphor. What is so unsettling about this story is not the transformation itself, which is handled as a matter of fact, but rather the way it impacts on the characters, including Gregor. The reality that unfolds after his metamorphosis isn’t that different from the one that went before.  Sure, he has been grossly transformed in physical terms, but the emotional relationship between the players really hasn’t changed very much. His humanity had already been compromised long before his transformation.


Horror stories, in particular monster stories, use this device all the time. Werewolves are literally the “beast within.” Mr. Hyde is the “dark side” that we all carry inside us and can never be rid of.  Frankenstein’s creature is the outcast and unwanted child who, nevertheless, we are still responsible for. Metaphorical monsters are open to interpretation, of course. Do zombies symbolize the ravening hordes, dehumanized by consumerism and modern society? Do vampires represent the unleashed power of repressed female sexuality? That’s pretty much up to the author (and the reader) but the device is the same nonetheless.


Into every generation, a metaphor is born.

To draw on a less hallowed example, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer made extensive use of the “literalization of metaphor” device, particularly during the early seasons: my mother is a witch (episode: Witch); teenagers are animals (The Pack); being ignored is as bad as being invisible (Out of Mind, Out of Sight); sleep with a boy, and he’ll turn into a unfeeling monster (Surprise and Innocence.) The technique was also applied in broader strokes. The whole first season can be seen as a literalization of a “high school is hell” metaphor. Dawn (in season five) is an adolescent girl who feels as if she doesn’t belong in this world (and what teenager hasn’t felt that way?) and, in Dawn’s case, it is literally true.

Consider one more example, then I’ll get to the point. JK Rowling, whose books draw exhaustively on conventional monster metaphors, also creates a beautiful example of her own: the horcrux, a literalization of the metaphor that taking another human life dehumanizes you by tearing your soul apart.

All right then, so what’s so special about all of this? Writers use metaphors and symbols all the time. But when a metaphor or a symbol becomes a real thing, it allows us to experience it in new and often startling ways. It acquires a new weight. We can hold it up, view it from different angles. My book Flight of the Wren sprung from a whimsical idea: what if flying carpets were a real thing? Not in ancient Persia or Alexandria, but here and now. And what if a teenage girl had one? A flying carpet can certainly symbolize flight itself, which we associate with freedom, with adventure, with power (it’s no coincidence that so many superheroes can fly), but flight is a word of several meanings. To take flight is to lift off the ground into the air, but  it is also to escape, to run away.

Being naturally contrary, I subverted my heroine’s expectations about the whole flying thing. The carpet brings freedom in only the most superficial sense. Far from giving her the escape she thought she craved, it makes her part of a flock, ties her to other people she cares about. It makes her responsible to others. Flying grounds her in a community she never even knew she wanted.

And that is pretty much what I mean by viewing the metaphor from a different angle. On the surface, the flying carpet is just a ditzy gimmick, but the metaphor allowed me to write about human connection, about family, about love and loss, which is what the book is really about.

So what about you? Anyone out there want to share your own examples of metaphors made flesh, either in your own book or some favored work? I’m all ears (and let’s hope that metaphor is never made flesh.*)

*  “I’m all ears,” I suppose, is really an example of metonymy, but I think we can let it slide.


7 thoughts on “The Monstrous and the Metaphorical

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Another thorough and thoughtful post, Atthys. I wish I had an easy answer to genre restrictions but it’s a (gross) marketing tool thought up by former blacksmiths who are used to pounding things into desired shapes.

    The new, highly specific, computer marketing may save us. For example, I searched online for a straw fedora and now no matter where I go on the ‘Net, ads for straw fedoras appear. (Not just hats, mind you. Straw fedoras.) So, readers who buy Flight of the Wren from Amazon could expect to see books about the escapist adventures of teen girls. In other words, we now have the capability to classify the content of books more specifically than ever before. Though we may have to wait for the ex-blacksmiths to retire.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. atthysgage says:

    I had a colleague of sorts tell me that it takes, on average, 21 viewings of an advertisement before people respond. Can’t fathom how they came up with this number, but if it’s accurate, then we have no choice but to blanket every cyber surface we can find with ads, constantly flashing in people’s faces, the very sort of ad campaigns we all find so annoying. Alas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In learning foreign language vocabulary incidentally by reading it in context (as opposed to intentionally), the figure 7 is often given as a minimum number of encounters. And I’ve come across that number as a minimum also for a product to be noticed. After that, it depends on what the response is – buy or flee at all costs? The trick, I imagine, is to come up with the ad that people won’t find annoying. No easy task.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. DocTom says:

    Hello Atthys,
    Interesting post, as always.
    I find that the human themes and questions embedded in religions are universal without the need to subscribe to any particular religion. I’m not sure it’s really a metaphor, but the world I created in Agony of the Gods is almost a literal representation of the Bible verse, Mark 8:36: “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” The Machine, the mega-computer created in some far off time, literally can give anyone who wants one their own world. I then can play with the question: “so what if?” Without going into detail, a subtext for much of the book is the battle for one of the main character’s soul. All this buried within a kinda mystery, inside a kinda science fiction story made it a lot of fun to write.
    Needless to say, it can also make it a tough, though hopefully interesting read – but we already discussed that in your previous post.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Mr. Atthys,

    Trying to digest all of this but I think great fiction needs to be everything for everyone. It needs to be simple and straight-forward for simple people like me. It also needs to have some obvious deeper meanings for the average reader and for the complex reader, it needs to have a deep rooted metaphor.

    I never watched Buffy mainly because I was more focused on a finding and starting my flying career but I know it had quite the following. I am sure it matured over its life because the audience matured. In season one, you addressed many issues that a late teen must deal with and five years later a post college age graduate has a different but still complex set of issues to deal with.

    I wonder if the writers knew that going into the beginning of the series or if it just evolved as they series evolved. Likewise, Harry Potter started off as a young child and grew into a man as the end of the series. Lots of room for growth but also for Mrs Rolling to get sidetracked and forget her audience.

    Lots of things for a author to think about. Thank you for taking me down this path.



    • atthysgage says:


      I like the idea of being everything for everyone (or at least something for everyone?) Unfortunately that all to often ends up being nothing for anyone. Ultimately, I try my best to put the audience out of my mind when I’m writing, not because I don’t care but because it’s too destracting. Predictably, I haven’t had any kind of success in finding a wide audience, but I’m not sure if writing for that imaginary audience would really help, and would certainly make the writing itself harder and probably less satisfying.

      For the record, I think my books are accessible to absolutely anyone. I also seriously question your characterization of yourself as simple. You probably wouldn’t be here if you were.



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