Comparisons are odious…. or are they?

We’re all familiar with those websites where we can compare the prices of similar products. But this post isn’t about comparing like with like; for the purposes of making our creative writing even more interesting and imaginative, we should be comparing apples and oranges, if you see what I mean.

We’re not talking cliché here, folks. What we are trying to achieve is a fresh, inventive way of expressing a person’s characteristics, hopefully with a new spin, by using a comparison that hasn’t been used before. Arresting imagery brings another dimension to our writing and if we can help our readers to build vivid pictures of our characters in their minds we are onto a winner.

Remember my last post about Showing/Telling – comparison is another way of showing, of injecting life into your characters and giving readers an insight into their attributes without labouring the point or indulging in lengthy descriptions. At its most basic, comparing a fat man to a barrel conjures up a nice image, but by making the association a little more imaginative we can really bring the character to life. At this stage I make no apologies for citing one of my favourite authors, a past master at the art of descriptive prose, PG Wodehouse. This is how Wodehouse made use of the fat/barrel analogy in one of his Jeeves and Wooster stories: ‘It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla and changed its mind at the last moment.’

Beautifully done. No mention of the person’s size is necessary; the imagery tells you all you need to know. And so much better than ‘barrel’.

Here’s another of Wodehouse’s comparisons which never fails to please me. Describing the formidable daughter of one of his characters, he has this to say: ‘Honoria… is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging across a tin bridge.’

I can’t resist: here are a couple more. Once you get started with Wodehouse, it’s difficult to stop. Compare:

  • He was a rather large man with beady eyes, with: ‘Roderick Spode? Big chap with a small moustache and the sort of eye that can open an oyster at sixty paces?’
  • She was comfortable built, with: ‘She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight around the hips that season.’
  • He looked downcast, with: ‘Before my eyes, he wilted like a wet sock.’

Think about that rather slimy individual playing a bit part in your story. Does he look like a snake? A lizard? Give him some reptilian characteristics. What about that self-satisfied woman in the doctor’s surgery, who acts as if she’s protecting the entrance to Hades itself, or the amiable vicar bouncing on the balls of his feet like a tethered flag?  A little thought will bring up lots of similar analogies and make your writing so much more appealing.


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