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.