The problem of simile

Simile: a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared, as in “she is like a rose”.

Similes are useful as a descriptive shortcut. They rely on the reader understanding what qualities a rose has that might be applied to a woman. Is it that she is a particular colour? Capable of photosynthesis? Thorny? Possessed of exquisite and delicate beauty?

In fiction there is a further level of assumption, not only that the reader knows what qualities the simile is eliciting, but that the characters have that understanding too. In science fiction and fantasy simile becomes a problem. Do roses exist in your world? If you’re writing fantasy set in an earth-like world there probably are roses and you can use them in simile without trouble. If you’re writing space opera set in a time and place far away from comtemporary earth then you’re going to have to give it a bit more thought.

In something I was reading lately, a space opera, a character visiting an alien world and culture describes an animal as resembling the komodo dragon from old earth. This character doesn’t come from earth. She is a second or third generation (at least) colonist. The planet was colonised by descendants of the original colonists who set out in a generation ship about one hundred years in the future. If komodo dragons still exist on earth what are the chances of this character having the first idea what they look like? The effect is that the reader’s immersion in the world of the novel is disrupted.

So, if I can’t rely on simile for creating a picture in the mind of the readers, what can I do? Well, one solution is to get better at description. It seems to me similes are the lazy option. Taking the time to describe my worlds without using references to things my readers would be familiar with will add greater depth to my stories.

The other option is to create similes that work within the world. This is something that could be derived from effective description. Characters would naturally compare things to other things, but only to things with which they are familiar. The trick is creating that familarity with the reader. This definitely seems like a more challenging solution but one which might lift my writing a bit above the ordinary. If I can pull it off.

2 thoughts on “The problem of simile

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