Monday, June 18, 2012

"It's a Metaphor," No, It's a Dead Horse: Thoughts on Grammar

Many times when hearing someone speak about the metaphors they are developing for their script or game or "thing" I feel myself pausing and asking myself... "are we really talking about metaphors here?"
Meet a Meaningless Metaphor

Metaphor as a word is overused. There are many devices that exist in the English language and metaphor is arguably the most powerful. (Eat it, exclamations!)


[met-uh-fawr, -fer] 
1. a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our God.” Compare mixed metaphor, simile
2. something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.
Metaphors are the big ticket items, the Lamborghinis of phrasing. Elegant, Sleek, desirable and sexy; That's right people, sexy grammar.

Pictured: Grammar
There's a lot of excellent talk on metaphors in Metaphor: A Practical Introduction and frankly, I don't have time to write an entire book right here, though I suppose that was the whole point of this blog once upon a time... 

Metaphors become the short form phrases that give greater meaning to those disjointed strung together words.  How do you get from sentences to metaphors? The greater expression of meaning relies on the references that are understood, in the metaphor above, we all have to know what a fortress is in order to understand it, but we live in cultures with many, many stories and reference points to understand "fortress" and its associated meaning even if you don't live near a castle.

When a cultural entity has boiled down over time and repetition enough to be immediately recognizable and meaningful without the context of its story "A White Knight," a "Red Herring," even the "fortress" above is a concrete metaphor. While in the early middle ages, a White Knight may have required a more complex explanation, most westerners get the symbol immediately as it has been distilled into our collective memory through a plethora of stories about chivalry and heroes.

A Frankenstein, is a metaphor grown from a narrative.
Other than the literal "use me in a sentence" metaphor, there's conceptual metaphor that describe a more abstract concept as target and a more concrete or physical concept as their source. "Love", "Idea", etc... these are much more complex and often ask us to defy a single sentence or fragment to explain them, these are ideas and concepts that are still emerging into cultural consciousness and while someday may be able to boil down to single phrases or words, these concepts are being developed through story.


1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.
Our most common definition of story discusses their instructive intention, whether we're attempting to convey an idea, experience or emotion, stories are the way humans communicate with one another these complex concepts.


1. a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.
2. a book, literary work, etc., containing such a story.3. the art, technique, or process of narrating
Narratives imply an even greater level of construction, that they are crafted carefully to convey stories with a clear intentionality.

We often talk about narratives as being metaphors as well. Grammatically, they aren't really, but narratives are the building blocks of metaphors yet to be fully formed. Metaphors are conglomeration of mutually understood meaning, and the way that cultures define meaning are through shared mythologies. These stories are the articulations of emergent conceptual metaphors, they make use of existing concrete and conceptual metaphors to get their points across. Parts of them may be metaphoric, but a well-built narrative usually has layers of meaning and theme and message that may encompass a variety of these points to build a conversation in the mind of the audience that may, someday, through the work of many storytellers, distill into one or several culturally poignant metaphors.

So, why am I harping? Storytellers in many industries hem and haw about metaphors all the time, but building a story made entirely of metaphors is like building a house made entirely of L-joints, you could, but let's take a step back and see if that's the most efficient way to make our point? When looking at our creations, we should probably take a hard look and determine whether or not we want an individual narrative to be the most elaborately potent thematic tour-de-force ever conceived because I want to be clear: not every story needs Superman in it.

Sometimes one is too many Supermans.
Metaphors are the Superman of Grammatical Phrases, which of course means they're very powerful. They communicate meaning very quickly and complex meaning very efficiently. There are however other things out there that convey meaning, like for instance:

The LITERAL MEANING of words. 

When people confuse metaphor with the actual meaning of the words they are saying it's begun to drive me a bit bonkers, and it's time we all sat and had a talk about it. 

Sometimes when people say they're using metaphors, they are not. People all over the place are saying that metaphors are being applied when they are not. Let's all take a moment to stop and address this.

A clear example of where this peeves me personally are in places like Character names. Let's pick on Twilight – because that's always fun and easy – Bella Swan. Over the top character names that are trying to give simple cheats to the audience with low-hanging fruit metaphors and literal descriptors has gotten quite old. Let's make up a few: Derrek Oilman, Rebecca Goodheart, Harrison Moustachio,  Larry Abouttogetshotbythevillain. I read and watch A LOT of scripts and new work, and these names rarely come off at the level of cleverness that the author may think they do.

In some cases, even the first one I've pulled out, Ms. Bella Swan, they employ simple metaphor. Bella; which just straight up means beautiful, but in another language; and Swan, which I'll give you is symbolic and ripe with associations are constructed to tell you exactly what to expect from the character. Whether you make her clumsy to humanize her or not, the expectation that she is a graceful, beautiful snowflake put on this Earth to make others around her gape in slack-jawed awe is there and it's followed through in the book. But what's the point of character development when we already know how this will end? SPOILER: she becomes a vampire and stops being clumsy and everyone thinks she's the prettiest and the most graceful, etc... etc...

So, simple metaphors and literal character traits. I'm saying that Bella Swan's name is sorta a metaphor but maybe not really because it's not asking us to consider new information about the character or her situation, it's just literal shorthand that she's the bestest and we should all know that. Same goes with action heroes and things, Robin Larceny or Pussy Galore or Karen Forewe lack a degree of subtlety and are much more literal than metaphoric in their use in narratives.

An excellent book that I suggest all authors read is Metaphor: A Practical Introduction, by  , while my 12 year old self is inwardly cringing that I'm recommending a book on grammar, my grown-up self cannot express enough the need for higher level grammatical and semantic understanding in constructing complex narratives.

If Metaphors are the Lamborghinis of Grammar, I'm going to suggest that literal and simple metaphoric naming are the $500 used cars of Grammar: Cheap, get you from A to B, but are just as likely to blow up in your face as move you forward. 

So, if complex conceptual metaphors are the smooth, high performance machines a narrative is the highway your sports car will travel down. You can either make an interstate highway that carries a lot of traffic, or a beautiful scenic roadway with curves built for speed. 
Not all roads should be the Pacific Coast Highway though.
All these meaningful bits of language are extremely potent and useful, but there is a very important reality that is the Rabid, Raging Supermoon-Addled Lycanthrope of my pet peeves in recent weeks. 
Characters are not metaphors themselves, they are avatars.


  1. A manifestation of a deity in bodily form on earth.
  2. An incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea
Characters in a narrative are representations of meaningful concepts, but they themselves are a specific sort of meaningful concept, one where the audience member is engaging with them as constructed human beings, rather than simply symbols.

While you can have a meaningful story in 6 words or less, for the most part narratives involve characters who are established for longer periods of time and ask the audience to engage with them as though they were representing real people, at least during the time they are experiencing the story. So, William Wallace in Braveheart is not a metaphor he is an Avatar of a variety of meaningful concepts: rebellion, freedom from tyranny, love, ferocity, etc.... His story is metaphorical– less an accurate recounting of exact facts than a request to the audience to experience a story that establishes or communicates a mood.

In films and novels, there are epic amounts of criticism about the way characters represent ideas, the way they embody metaphoric and even universal themes, and a lot of rigor can be put into the academic study of this type of avatar.

Avatars mean different things to different narratives. If your story is a film, it may mean the character or it may mean the embodiment of a God. If you are playing a game, the Avatar also refers to the figure that the player manipulates throughout the game world. Here, Avatars and Characters become more synonymous, at least to those who spend their working days exclusively creating these elaborate works of experiential narrative.

Recently, the executive producer for the new Tomb Raider game was quoted as stating:
"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character," Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.
"They're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"
This is a statement that implies that Lara Croft, unlike other first and third person game avatars, doesn't act as a viewpoint for the gamer to experience the game world. This posit flies in the face of most video game criticism and studies that the player avatar becomes the vessel for the character projected. Now, most of the people who have piled onto these quotes, some of which have been denied by the Publisher, Square Enix and Developer, Crystal Dynamics

The largest problem with the above quote beyond the possible misattribution, and the implicit sexism, is a misunderstanding of the relationship between player and avatar in gaming. If Crystal Dynamics is making an attempt to innovated on the gameplay experience by asking the player to engage in a different way with this Lara Croft than in the past, kudos. But, regardless of the avatar's gender, the accepted wisdom in gaming is that the player DOES project themselves into the character of the avatar regardless of their gender. 

Do I, as a woman, identify less with Master Chief of Ezio Auditore because of the gender barrier between us? No, I do not believe so. The idea that because these men are handsome or sexually appealing (though none quite as showily as Lara Croft in any of her iterations) is something that would very rarely become subject to argument. So why do we then argue that men do not identify with a female avatar the same way?

Shame on you, undressing him with your eyes.
I would love to be a fly on the wall to see what studies or focus groups or assumptions went into the development of this experiment in avatar-building, but the next best thing will be seeing how audiences react. Will the gameplay be enjoyable or thoroughly lukewarm? What's it like if it's been built differently?

Regardless, it seems likely that the quotes, while potentially erroneous hit on an assumption that is all to commonly stated in different forms around gaming, and entry point characters in film, television and other media: that an entry point character will not affect the audience potently unless that character looks and feels exactly like them. 

This comes down to the idea that a story's meaning will not be effectively communicated unless the character that centrally articulates its messages relates to every single individual in the audience that encounters it. By this logic, every person who will be moved by Superman should be a male kryptonian orphan who grew up in Kansas.

Just like metaphors, there are different types of avatar, and the reason avatars exist is because concepts, like deities, incarnate in different ways at different times. The entire point is that a concept large enough to embody a conceptual metaphor (whether it is a god, or love, or heroism or even a famous legend like King Arthur) is going to be told from different perspectives for different people at different times. The metaphors require a plurality of stories to articulate them to cement them in human consciousness, so that they can be shared widely and ultimately instruct their audiences.

Limiting one's opinion of who or what "people" will be affected by the characterization of a character that necessarily is a vessel for the audience's point of view is limiting to the point of impeding the process of communicating the themes and ideas of your story. When the producer of Tomb Raider is quoted as saying that "people" don't identify with the avatar of Lara Croft, it means that they assume that women do not identify with the female protagonist, and that men do not identify with a female protagonist. It seems wrongheaded and insulting to both genders, especially given the wild historical success of the property. Whether or not it was actually stated, the concept is insulting and suggests to me that the Gamplay Avatar vs. Character Avatar dynamic is as confused as the literal and conceptual metaphor semantics in how narrative is approached.

Characters and Avatars are neither metaphors in their own right, or literal interpretations of concepts. They are constructions that are larger than them both, designed to impart a certain perspective on narrative incidents designed to build around a specific theme or message. Trying to reduce a character to a single metaphor or a single literal point leads to a very limited perspective and an even more limited viewpoint for an audience to see through. Sometimes this can be done well, sometimes a literally named character is amusing. But not as an afterthought and not unintentionally, the way to approach the tools you use to build a narrative and your expertise with them are essential to the strength of what you present.

Please don't try to install a screw with a hammer, 
it simply doesn't work right and we'll all be disappointed. 

Know what tools you're using and why. 

Most of these metaphor images I've used in this entry are from this blog whose entire goal is to create images of metaphors that don't mean anything as a social experiment.
This is excellent. Even as I was searching for things that AREN'T good examples of metaphors, I found myself making up stories about the connections between the things in the images. They don't translate well now, but who knows what they'll mean to someone in the future, or to someone in another country. They might even inspire a really good story.

I found them pretty funny and enjoyable in their own right, even though they are intentionally meaningless.

Now we've covered Concrete Metaphor, Conceptual Metaphor, Literal Meanings, Avatars as Vessels and in Gameplay, Entry Point Characters and Entirely Nonsensical Amusements. They all make up the beautiful tapestry of language both visual and verbal that humans use to communicate, and there are many more tools in metaphor and beyond that can be used to tell your story.

Let's all try to mean what we say and say what we mean accurately.

Just because it isn't really a metaphor doesn't make it not AWESOME.

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