Thursday, February 28, 2013

Metaphors in Worldbuilding: A Google+ hangout report

I was joined for this discussion by Glenda Pfeiffer, Harry Markov, Kyle Aisteach, Deborah Ross, Brian Dolton, and Lesley Smith. There was some good news on the technical front, which was that I figured out how to do the lighting appropriately so people could see me!

We started the discussion by defining metaphors and similes (in the most basic sense). A metaphor generally takes the form "X is Y," where you say that one thing is another. It serves the purpose of drawing an association between the two things, including the images and emotions brought up by each. Examples include "Love is a war," or "My love is a flower." Similes are a lot like metaphors, except they say "X is like Y." A simile has the same kind of emotional associative effect, with a somewhat different phrasing. Examples of these include "she was as beautiful as the sunrise," "He was as tall as a tree," "It was so dark, it was like the inside of a cave."

Metaphors, as I mentioned in my post a little while ago, are often much sneakier than the examples above. They can be difficult to detect because they "hide" inside the verbs we use, and the phrasings we employ. If you ever talk about magic "flowing" you are saying that magic is like water even if you never use those words to make it explicit.

Writers get a lot of advice about using interesting action verbs in English, and those verbs are very often metaphorical. Examples include barrelling down the hall, rocketing away, taking off, etc. When you use those phrasing, it creates a link in your mind between the thing that literally rockets, barrels, etc. and the thing you are describing. Be careful with this, because in a medieval setting you won't want to say that something "rocketed." That verb does not have its meaning of "going dramatically fast" without the image of the rocket to back it up, and thus using it in the wrong context can become a dramatic anachronism (unless for some reason your medieval people have independently invented rockets!).

Brian made the excellent point that the genre of sf/f is one in which metaphors must be used with care, because you have to be certain that readers can't accidentally interpret your metaphors literally. Kyle provided a great example with the idea of people "hovering." If you are in science fiction, they might literally be hovering off the ground - so how can you be sure? Of course, once you're well into a story and have the setting established it's less of a problem, but at the beginning you can really confuse readers. I mentioned an article that I've written for the new magazine Blue Shift (which will be appearing this year!) about how science fiction writers first let readers know that the world they are experiencing is not like our own. Taking metaphors literally is one of the major strategies they employ (for the other four, you'll have to read the article...)! Therefore, if you are not planning to use metaphor in this manner, you really have to let people know.

Metaphors are also very useful as the basis for a magic or technology system. Though not all magic systems follow rules, it's helpful for your story to keep them relatively well-behaved, and metaphors can be a great tool for accomplishing this. The most common metaphor I can think of is that of "magic is water," but the Harry Potter books also use "magic spells are projectiles." These metaphors guide the way that you describe the action and appearance of magic when it occurs. I have two stories that I wrote in which magic behaves like ink, and the "magic wand" is actually a writing implement that produces ink which then forms itself into things. As for technology metaphors, Tron gives a good example of "the virtual world is a space inside a container." Sometimes the virtual is described as being "above" reality - but when we change the metaphor, we can change the feel of the story dramatically. My current story takes the virtual and treats it as something you "overlay" upon your own reality, and thus (I hope!) creates a sense of the virtual as more invasive and less contained.

Deborah commented that "one interesting variation is the difference in metaphorical thinking between humans and non-humans (aliens or animals). For example, a scent-oriented species like dogs would have very different metaphors than we sight-oriented simians."

Harry noted that this difference holds not only between species but between cultures. He is currently working with a post-apocalyptic water world, where people live on boat houses "with no land in sight." Thus his metaphors are influenced by the fact that they are constantly in motion and have an intimate relationship with water (as their friend, their enemy, etc.). To them it is like a living thing with hunger. "The sea is a harsh mistress" is literal. Deborah suggested they would have their own ways of indicating direction and distance, and many words for different types of water, waves, etc. This took us in the direction of the idea of Eskimos having many words for snow, which has been cited for many years as one of the differences between languages. People do indeed use more diverse words when they feel they can draw meaningful distinctions in something that is common, say qualities of snow, or waves.

I brought up an example of when I was working with a scent-oriented species. I was asked several times by different acquaintances what I did when I couldn't say that something "smelled like cinnamon." Comparing scents to other familiar scents is a common tool for conveying details of smells, but it doesn't always work in a fantasy or science fictional environment. The question to ask, whenever you're working with an alien culture, is "What is meaningful? What is worthy of comparing to something else?" You can sometimes compare something to an alien animal, and use that alien word without translating, so long as it has semantic support from the rest of the metaphor (meaning that readers can be led to guess what the general sense of the metaphor is).

In English, we have a lot of metaphors based on meaningful activities - even if they aren't as meaningful now as they were historically. One example is that of nautical metaphors, coming from the era of travel on ships (particularly wooden ships, we suspected). These often slip by without being noticed, because they are used so often. Things that are literally descriptive at one point in a people's history will later be used as metaphors, and sometimes will completely lose connection to the original context. Kyle suggested "going under" and "that sinking feeling" as possibly nautical. I - accidentally! -  came up with "having no moorings" and "being anchored" as metaphors for lack of connection. Clearly, it's possible to talk about anchors without using the literal context of boat anchors... and Glenda told us she could "get on board with that"! Kyle suggested our conversation had "gone adrift."

This is a great trend to take advantage in a fictional cultural context. When David Peterson was working on the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones, he did a lot of work with horse-based metaphors and language based on the horse culture of the Dothraki.

Of course, English has horse-related metaphors, too. Our language has an incredible diversity of metaphors, and in fiction, we often narrow down the diversity of metaphors. However, that kind of focus is helpful to create a particular "feel" in your fictional world.

Metaphor is also very helpful for informing you about how a character thinks about something. The political use of metaphor is very powerful. Modern political parties will have focus groups to determine how they will talk about a particular topic, so as to cause specific emotional reactions among those listening. "Makers" and "takers" has been used very effectively. People who enter negotiations thinking of them as "war" will be less likely to strive for a win-win situation. In a worldbuilding situation, it's useful to think about what kind of metaphors people use for their lives, because it will influence how they interpret others' behaviors. I try to make sure to put this kind of difference in my stories. "Our entire metaphorical life is different from yours and it will have the following effect on every single interaction that we have." Although authors often identify single phrases to use as the basis for misunderstanding, it can also be taken to the next level. Metaphors lead us to understand how people categorize the world. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (also called Linguistic Relativity) is suggested reading for this topic, but it essentially states that a person's language deeply influences the patterns of their thought. How do you create the categories? How do you decide what boxes to put people and situations in? My wolf character thought of his whole life as a hunt, so his colleagues were huntmates, and followers could say "I'm following at your hind haunch, and I wish I could be at your shoulder."

Kyle noted that you can see dramatic differences even in our own history. The metaphors used in Anglo-Saxon literature are very different from those we  use today. He suggested they used the ship metaphors, but many transformational and agrarian metaphors. Inanimate objects speak all the time in riddles. "In their world view, a book was an animal. It was made out of the bark of the tree; the sheets were vellum, made out of animal skin, it was written with a quill pen... it was an animal." This made me think of the animism in Shinto religion that influences how they think about objects. A lot of legends have to do with neglect causing objects to take on their own spirits and start misbehaving.

Deborah noted that old technologies still remain in our language.

Metaphors give us insight into the normal, and the familiar. Most often they will be comparing something familiar with something new. Often I will reverse metaphors to change which part of reality is new. My underground folk will talk about nature (new) in terms of technology and human culture (familiar), where in our own lives we most likely compare human things (familiar) to natural things (new). So to give an example, where we would say "her hair was like a waterfall," giving the familiar image of her hair a wild and refreshing feeling; they would be more likely to say something like "the rock face gleamed like a clean plate," trying to fit something very large into a world-concept that only admits much smaller, more human things.

Brian brought up Norse poetry and the kennings they use. Myth is often brought into descriptions of common, everyday objects. For example, gold is "Freya's tears," and the wrist is "the wolf joint" because the wolf Fenris bit off Tyr's hand. Brian noted that these metaphors do two jobs at once, because they show metaphor and also build more depth to a mythology (they can come in layers). Japanese poetry uses similar principles, so that each word does three or four jobs. Referring to the moon also makes it the fall season and brings a sense of wistfulness; cherry blossoms refer to spring, but also transient beauty and regret. The strict structure of the poem means that using highly associative words is most effective.

This brought us (of course) to the Star Trek episode Darmok, where an entire alien language was based on the idea of referring to characters and situations in a shared mythology. In a sense the Tamarians' language concept is a sort of logical endpoint for the use of metaphors in language: language has been so entirely taken over by metaphorical reference to mythology that nothing else is left. Whether or not every detail of the language design in that episode "works" realistically or not, it's fascinating because it speaks to something in our own language use that we don't often consider. To someone who knows the stories that underlie a culture, metaphors are simple to understand. To an outsider, however, they can be entirely opaque.

Brian mentioned how often English uses metaphors from Shakespeare, comparing things to Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. The King James Bible is similar; Deborah mentioned the Talmud and references to its stories in Jewish culture. This can sometimes be called "intertextuality," i.e. bringing a reference from one text into another. This happens a lot more than we realize. In psycholinguistics class, I learned that every time you hear a word, it brings up every single time you've ever heard it (and the context it came with). Words become generic when they have too many usages, and thus emotionally charged instances of their use become lost in a flood of other associations. Kyle pointed out how quickly a word can enter the language, like the phrase Catch-22, which was found so perfectly appropriate that it caught on immediately. Brian spoke of his own use of intertextuality, where he has people in his fictional work who refer to plays and works of literature in the history of his own world. "As rich as Martos" is understandable even without knowing who Martos was. At the same time, the use of a phrase like this deepends one's understanding of the historical and cultural background of the fictional world. Harry brought up how movie quotes move into the general language. Catch phrases convey an attitude, like "Hasta la vista, baby," "I'll be back," "Inconceivable," "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Use of quotes like these can define social communities, almost like passwords. If I give you half a quote, and you provide the other half, then we can have a conversation because we're both Princess Bride fans.

Metaphors work two ways. It's not just that one term informs the other; both feed into one another. One unfortunate instance of this recently was a writer who described their dogs as "canine-Americans." Unintentional as the effect was, it upset a lot of people, precisely because of the two-way street of metaphorical meaning. The phrase "X-American" brings up all the instances in which it was used, a large number of which describe immigrants to the US, and racial groups; then the bleed-back of meaning led to readers feeling that immigrants and racial groups had somehow been associated with dogs.

Metaphors are extremely powerful tools, and I feel that examining their properties consciously is a good way to avoid both the pitfalls of unintended meaning and those of political demagoguery.

Harry brought up a fascinating example of how metaphors can change meaning across cultures. He spoke of a reality show in which Jessica Simpson referred to tuna as "Chicken of the Sea." Apparently the phrase caught on in Bulgaria among his English-speaking friends as a way of making fun of stupid people. We were all surprised, because we knew about the American tuna fish brand, "Chicken of the Sea," but Harry had never heard of it. It was interesting to see how the meaning of the phrase could be re-construed. When you transfer a metaphor from one context to another, it can lose its original reference, and take on a totally different meaning.

Another example of semantic drift is "Coney Island." Coneys were originally rabbits, and I'm pretty sure that the island was named for rabbits, but it is now associated with the amusement park on the island. Thus, Genda remarked, hot dogs can be called "coneys."

At that point I returned to the idea of metaphorical meaning going two ways, because it can be particularly useful in worldbuilding. If you have (for example) a group of people and you want to associate a particular feeling with them, you can other characters in your world use their name as a metaphor. One example from my Varin world would be to say "that's as incongruous as an Imbati sharing a secret." By saying this, you not only learn about the incongruity of the larger situation, you also learn something about Imbati (which you might not have known before). Thus, using metaphors in this way can give added dimension to groups of people, situations, or places in your world. As you begin the story, most of the meaning will transfer from the surrounding context into the term you've invented, but as you go further along in the story, you can start to turn it around and use the invented term to inform readers about other things in the book. Teaching metaphors to readers over the course of a story can be fun!

Harry summed up that he usually uses metaphor to create an emotional atmosphere in his sort stories, such as the one he's working on, where the sole survivor of an enormous wave will see water as loathsome, unwelcome, associated with death, pain, guilt, etc.

Deborah Ross said that she felt the careful use of metaphor often becomes a casualty of quick, superficial, and poorly-edited writing. I think this is particularly the case with deeper metaphors, extended metaphors, metaphors that inform the way that a world works - the ones that are more complex than just "slapping a simile on it." Often, we find new, more complex metaphorical opportunities in the revision stage, rather than the composing stage. One's subconscious often will create patterns of repetition in metaphor that can be enhanced in revision. Kyle suggested that we have to be careful not to baffle the reader with unsupported metaphors, or metaphors that have too much basis in a created world rather than in our own. Harry mentioned that when you work with post-apocalyptic settings, references to the past can be useful but can also function as a crutch.

Thanks to everybody who took part in this fantastic conversation! This week, today at 11am PST, we'll discuss how to build a world to fit a story, i.e. how to construct a world once you've already got the story going. I hope you can join us!

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