USING A SIMILE TO DESCRIBE A CHARACTER by Ann Adams

A vivid way to describe a character is to use a simile.

How many times have we read that a man was built like an oak stump, or the face of a woman with a long neck looked like a flower on a stalk? When I wrote about a man with a hangover, Nathan sat on the edge of the bed like a shipwreck, I didn’t know whether that was original or a product of cryptomnesia (inadvertent plagiarism; you forget that you read it somewhere) or a case of more than one writer independently having the same idea.

Some similes that describe characters are too detailed to be copies. Tawni O’Dell is a master of the technique. In Angels Burning, she describes a lawyer this way:

He’s a big, bluff guy, gregarious and loud, who gets up from his desk and eagerly comes at you across his office for a handshake like a linebacker heading for a fumbled ball.

In the same book, it’s easy to forget whether Shawna Truly is a blue-eyed blond or a dark-eyed brunette, but neither description makes her as vivid as the way she walks into a police station after her daughter has been murdered and her son accused of the crime:

Like a she elephant grandly walking through a group of deadly big cats to get to the water hole, she has a regal disinterest in her surroundings because she knows nothing can touch her.

 Miranda Truly is as thin as Shawna is large in this implied simile. (You figure out what I mean by “implied.”)

Despite the heat, she’s costumed in a long-sleeved black sack of a dress that falls below her knees. If it weren’t for the presence of her head and a pair of withered, blue-veined hands, I’d think the garment was still on its hanger.

A century ago, in Helen With a High Hand, Arnold Bennett used a different but just as striking simile to show us how thin James Ollerenshaw was:

He leant his right elbow on the back of the seat, and his chin on his right palm. He put his left leg over his right leg, and thus his left foot swayed like a bird on a twig.

 Isn’t that magnificent? Doesn’t it make you want to go out on a limb and find your own pot of gold similes? (I’ll write about mixed metaphors another time.) What are some that you have written? What are some that you have read? Will you post them for us?

3 thoughts on “USING A SIMILE TO DESCRIBE A CHARACTER by Ann Adams

  1. Good similes are hard to find today. They take some effort to make them colorful in imagery and clear in intent. They’re also ‘wordy’, often too so for the rapid fiction that’s in vogue now. But when done properly, as in the examples you listed, they enrich the story. As a writer and a reader, I savor the masterful examples and try to emulate them in my own writing. And a special thanks for ‘cryptomnesia’ – I’m adding it to my vocabulary!

  2. I’m finding quite a few good similes in the books I’ve been reading lately, but very few that describe how a character looks. I’ve found only two of that kind in the book I’m reading today, Craig Johnson’s “Another Man’s Moccasins.”

    “Rosey slipped back onto the highway like a glossy panther looking for prey.”

    “He raised a hand, his thin arm hanging in the frayed cuff of his shirt like a clapper in a bell.” (I think that’s a particularly good one.)

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