But soft, what podcast through yonder feed breaks? That there was an allusion, one of the many many literary devices authors have at their disposal. But what do literary devices mean, and how can they be used in a way that’s not grating and awkward? That’s what we’re talking about this week, plus a healthy dose of Shakespeare and puns.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song] Oren: This episode was produced thanks to our patron: Kathy Ferguson, professor of Political Theory in Star Trek.
Wes: Hello, and welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes, and with me today is…
Wes: And so, today we’d like to walk you through- define and walk you through some kind of popular litery- [enunciating] -literary devices that you can use in your stories. We’ll try to provide a little definition, talk about how they get used, and then also maybe ask about- talk about what value it adds to your story.
Oren: So, a literary device is like a pen or a keyboard, right? Like, a device that you use to make literature?
Wes: I mean, that’s a good metaphor. [laughter] Even though technically, it’s a simile since he used the comparative word ‘like’. But anyway, we’ll get there.
Oren: See, in literary circles, that is known as a ‘sick burn’. [laughter]
Chris: Yeah. That’s- first thing I learned in preparation for this podcast is that there are a lot of those suckers. So many literary devices for everything.
Wes: There are. And I mean, the reality is- for those of you writers out there who are looking to use these, it’s overwhelming to look at them. But I do think that there are some broad ones that I think speak to covering most of the things you might want to do in your stories, and that’s definitely what we’re going to try to do here today.
Oren: My favorite was when I was looking them up, cause I realized I didn’t know what the definition of a literary device was. And I looked them up, and apparently it covers everything from like, very narrow things about how words are pronounced to having a plot. [Wes and Chris laugh] A plot is considered a literary device. And I’m like, ‘this is a very wide field here.’
Wes: I think conflict is technically a literary device as well. [Oren laughs] Anyway, I guess to start… more-or-less alphabetically: allusion is a pretty solid literary device that shows up in plenty of stories across genres. And you’ve probably heard it before, but we’re talking about references to other things. And the important thing about this literary device is that you don’t explain the reference; you just make it.
Chris: So, if you explain it, it’s not an allusion anymore?
Wes: No, it’s just a reference.
Wes: Because the whole value of an allusion is that, since you don’t have to explain it, that probably means that A: that your readers will pick up on it, and then that assumes B: that you’re drawing on a shared experience. So, that then lets you add value. And so, if you were to look at- if you were to sample allusions from 18th and 19th century lit, and even into like, the 1920s with modernists, they’re drawing on Shakespeare allusions and Biblical allusions, by far and large.
Chris: So, the famous first line, “Call me Ishmael”, from Moby Dick, would be an allusion, right?
Wes: Yeah, if you- and that could be something in passing, if you’re writing a little narrative and you said, ‘la la la, I met this person, and he just told me to call him Ishmael.’ It’d be hard for somebody to read that and not think Moby Dick.’
Oren: Alright, so, I have to admit, I’ve been hearing you, and I keep having to remind myself that you’re saying ‘allusion’ with an ‘a’ and not an ‘i’. [Chris laughs] I’m just imagining illusionists, wizards, running all over the place casting Mirror Image. But okay, so, just to bring this a little bit into a modern context; if someone, in their story, has a scene where a character makes a joke with the protagonist and is like, ‘you know, Bob, I am your father…’ That’s an allusion?
Wes: Yeah. And actually, a good way- like, if you read about allusions and others described as lit devices, it can be kind of intimidating. But really, comedians are masters of allusion, like, highly referential jokes. And if you explain jokes, they’re not that funny. And so, they’re drawing on shared knowledge.
But I suppose, in a story- like, you could make an offhand joke like that and it would be fun, but you’d kind of want to try to do something a little bit more. So, if you were doing like, a- you’re maybe doing like, a fanfic story set in Area X. Area X, let’s take that for an example.
Oren: How did you know about what I’m writing right now? [Wes and Chris laugh]
Wes: I hacked you.
Oren: Oh, no!
Wes: And like, maybe one of your characters, they come across something out in the nature and it’s weird. And one of them just kind of whistles, and says, ‘what’s foul is fair, man. What’s fair is foul.’ Right there, that would be an allusion, because that’s a famous line from Macbeth, where the witches say that at the very start of the play.
And the idea with that allusion, if I were to read that in a story, I might think, ‘oh, man. That’s from Macbeth, and that’s kind of an inversion, about ‘what’s bad is good and what’s good is bad,’ so this might have importance in the story later on.’ So, in that respect, an allusion is almost- can serve as like, foreshadowing, because it might prime you.
But then, again, the difficulty- and I don’t remember reading a lot of allusions in the Southern Reach trilogy. The difficulty is that you have to rely on your readers picking up on that, if you’re putting it in there intentionally.
Oren: I was going to say- maybe I’m a killjoy here, but as a rule, when I’m editing stuff, I generally recommend that my clients not do that sort of thing. Because like, if I don’t get the reference, it can be really distracting. Like, I know they’re quoting something, but I don’t know what it is, and it feels weird.
And I don’t- maybe there’s a solution to that. Maybe you can make a reference that’s like, smooth- you can make an allusion that’s smooth enough that if someone knows it, they’ll be like, ‘oh, I see what you did there.’ But if someone doesn’t, they just won’t notice.
Wes: I think that’s actually great advice. The best- I think for like- including allusions in today’s writing, the best thing you can get is when somebody reads it- like, if you were to proofread a manuscript, it’d be like, ‘aw man, this kind of reminds me of something else.’ And then the author says, ‘good. That was kind of what I was going for.’
And if you really focus in on one genre, or like, a type of fiction, then it’d be hard to not let your influences show up in some form or the other.
Oren: Yeah, no, for sure.
Chris: I think the tough thing about trying to make an allusion that fits in, so that if people aren’t familiar with it, they don’t notice, is that it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Particularly with things like dialogue, where if what the character says is even like, slightly off, people will often notice, and it will often feel strange or out of place to them.
I have one story, Biological Intelligence, where I’m making a lot of technical references and technical verbiage. And I have one thing that I left in there, because it’s technically accurate, and both my editors noticed after the second read. I decided to leave it in, because they didn’t notice until the second read, but they still noticed, where I was using the word ‘okay,’ which in normal, casual conversation, it just means ‘okay. I guess so.’
But this- technically, if you have it on the web, an ‘okay’ response is like, ‘good.’ [laughs]
Oren: I remember that.
Chris: And so, the characters are using this as sort of like, a form of dialogue, and it just seems slightly off. And so, I think that’s the problem with the allusions, when you try to add them in there, is that you’ll often end up with that slightly off feel. Now, you might decide that, if it’s really rewarding for a lot of your readers, your target audience, to understand that allusion, then it might be worth it for some other group to feel like it’s slightly off.
Maybe the tradeoff is good enough. I also think that, with these kinds of things, it’s better if they see you- it occurred in the piece naturally and you’re not trying to force them. You’re not looking for a reason to use this allusion or this reference.
Wes: You should focus on like, what comes naturally first, and if your setting- if you just find yourself writing a setting where the young protagonist’s house happens to have a garden in the backyard, and that garden happens to have an apple tree, and that just seems right for you, then that’s fine.
You’ve kind of made a Biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden, and your readers might pick up on that and might suggest that the story suggests like, loss of innocence or something like that. But again, you shouldn’t- don’t force it. Allusions never- this literary device should never dominate the story. If anything, it should just add a little extra to certain passages.
And that’s why you see a lot of them show up as metaphors or like, similes, where you can say, ‘this is like this,’ and someone can imagine that.
Chris: Yeah. What about symbolism, with this problem?
Wes: That’s actually a pretty good segue.
Chris: Definitely, when I have people talk about symbolism, I feel like the ‘it feeling forced’ issue is a big issue. Now, granted, I feel like symbolism is so overhyped that I cannot bring myself to care about it at all. [Chris and Wes laugh]
Wes: You are not wrong.
Chris: And it just- it’s the kind of thing where I’m a big advocate of being as clear as you can be in your writing, because I think that things are never as obvious to your audience as they are to you by a mile. And so, if you are deliberately cloaking something in something else, then your readers just aren’t going to get it, and it doesn’t make sense to write for some English literature class a hundred years ago- a hundred years from now, instead of your real audience.
Oren: I mean, I write exclusively for English literature classes a hundred years from now. [Chris and Wes laugh] That’s my target audience, so like…
Wes: No, Chris, you’re absolutely right. I guess there’s a book that- when was that book published? It’s called Invisible Man, and that’s by Ralph Ellison. That is not The Invisible Man; they are very different books. But I think he’s on record. This is like, a mid-twentieth century novel about a young African-American’s experience.
And he famously declared that he didn’t put any symbols into that book. And if you read it, you probably find that there’s just a ton of symbols. But I thought that like, that attitude was the right one, because you can’t guarantee that the symbols you intentionally put into your writing are going to get picked up. And also, readers will find and resonate with whatever they will.
The only symbols that matter in a book that I think you should consider putting into a book are repeated symbols, and those are called motifs. And those are reenforcing a theme that you’d like to convey. So, that is a difference between a symbol and a motif.
So, if like, the idea of fire bringing light and knowledge is a good thing that you want to persuade your readers of, or convey throughout the work, then whenever people are making fire, or something like that, it’s a way to maybe like, bring people together after a bad experience, or something like that. Then that’s- fire takes on a symbolic meaning for like, community, and everything’s going to be all right. You know, something like that.
Chris: But that’s one of the things where a lot of writers are like, ‘no, I’m going to have this sort of deep symbolic motifs,’ and again, it just comes off as forced a little too easily.
Wes: Yeah, and I don’t think you should think on that kind of level, especially if you’re planning. If you’re a planner, I don’t think you should sit down with a list of your literary devices if you’re planning. I think if you write your draft- and maybe you could ask your editor to check out if something cropped up repeatedly, or if they find anything that- they could just ask.
That’s a really good job that editors perform, is notice repeated things or odd things. And at that point, maybe you could consider incorporating it or not.
Chris: And again, readers are really good at coming up with elaborate meanings to stories. [laughs] So, you could just let them do all of the deep analysis. Let the readers find the symbolism and do your work for you.
Oren: Right. Well, I know for me, some of the stories that I’ve written have what I’d consider to be symbolism, but I always take the stance that like, ‘this scene has to work for people who don’t get the symbolism,’ is how I take it. [Chris and Wes agree]
Like, to me, the scene has this symbolism, and if the scene is good enough to effectively convey that symbolism to somebody else, then great. But like, it has to work if they don’t get that symbolism. And I think that’s a good, best policy.
Chris: So, Wes, do you want to explain the difference between analogy and allegory? Cause I think that I’ve been using the word analogy wrong for like, years publicly. [Wes and Chris laugh]
Oren: It’s too late to walk that back. I think we’re just committed now. [Chris laughs]
Wes: Well, the important thing, first, is that both of these fit under the metaphor umbrella, and so, metaphor can be- like, a metaphor is a particular figure of speech, but broadly, any metaphor is just, you’re comparing something to something that is different. That’s what you’re doing. And so, an allegory and an analogy both compare something to something that is different. The difference is certainly one of scale.
An allegory, for example, is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. That is an allegory, because he is taking a literal farm of animals, and he’s having their actions and stuff largely compared to a real-life political situation of like, the rise of communism in Russia. So, allegory is like, the whole narrative.
An analogy is like, an extended metaphor, where you’re trying to describe something that might be a little weird to a reader. So, like, if Oren’s writing a story about how he gets- has somebody get mobbed by like, a group of people, but they’re doing it in a way that’s- he has to describe it as like, ‘it’s almost like a bunch of fishermen trying to wrangle in a whale,’ or something like that. It’s just trying to persuade you that, how you would think of it, it’s different than that.
Oren: Oh man, that’s what happens when authors try to make a boring thing sound interesting.
Wes: Oh my gosh, yes, that’s exactly what it is. [Chris laughs]
Chris: Do you have an example?
Wes: I meant to write one down; there was a good one from George Orwell’s… what’s it called? Hanged, I think? Something like that. About somebody trying escape a mob, that’s why I was thinking about that. But like, he’s slippery, kind of like a fish. It was a little too extended and kind of weird, where I felt like, ‘you probably could have said that a little more succinctly.’
And I think- yeah, the analogy kind of like- more often than not, when I read them, comes with a tendency to overexplain it. And you hear this all the time when we’re talking, you know, ‘blah blah blah,’ ‘oh, it’s just like when this happened and then that happened and then that happened.’ And what I’m trying to convey to you is just like- I’m trying to convince you of how this happened.
But I’m not being very good at explaining it to you, so I’m grasping at straws for a metaphor that makes sense to you.
Oren: Well, fun fact: if you use more words than you need to to describe something, you are using the literary device ‘periphrasis.’ [Wes and Chris laugh] I did not make that up; that is a real thing.
Oren: But I mean, using analogies to try to make a mundane thing seem interesting is a problem that I see in a lot of cosmic horror. And I mean, it’s a problem inherited from Lovecraft, cause he does that sometimes. All of his other problems aside, he has scenes, even in some of his better stories, where he tries to use these really fancy analogies, and it’s like, ‘Lovecraft, a fish-dude walked up to a stone, is what you’re saying just happened.’
And there’s like, a line there- I don’t know if there’s an official term for this, what Chris calls evocative telling.
Chris: Evocative telling is often what I’ve called it on the site. I don’t think evocative telling has to be a metaphor, but it’s when, instead of like- you have something mysterious. I have a critique post coming out where there’s a mysterious tree, but instead of actually having the tree be mysterious by having it do something mysterious; by like, somebody cut it down and then it was a stump for fifty years, and then suddenly it sprouted again. That’s really mysterious.
It just describes it as being mysterious, but in evocative ways, and using analogies. Like, ‘this tree, it was as though it was whispering to you when you-’ you know? And I’ve generally referred to that as evocative telling. But yeah, analogies would be frequently involved in that. And I think that they definitely can work, but they work so much better if you also show something weird. You also show something worth remarking on.
Oren: Right. And that reminds me of the difference between the stories Dagon and The Color Out of Space, where- and Lovecraft uses analogies in both to try to make something seem scarier.
In Dagon, he’s describing a fish-dude walking up to an altar, and he’s not doing anything threatening; he’s just walking up to an altar. And so, he’s trying to make that seem scary with analogies, but- and I forget exactly which ones he uses, but stuff like, ‘its eyes glowed like two foul stars in the night,’ or whatever. That sort of thing.
Versus- in The Color Out of Space, he is describing a scenario in which this family and their farm are just wasting away for no reason anyone can figure out. And so, that’s scary all on its own, so then, when he makes analogies about how their skin looks like the color of grave dirt, or something, it’s like, ‘okay, now you’re dressing up something that was already frightening to begin with.’
Wes: And that’s a good moment where we’ve gone into- we’ve taken an analogy and we’re now just reenforcing it with similes, right? And- because at that point, we get it, and you’ve explained the unusual situation with an analogy, but now that it’s familiar, you’re using similes to just keep saying, ‘it’s like this, it’s like this, it’s like this.’ And if you’re constantly having to use metaphors, similes, and analogies, then that means you are constantly offering comparisons to your readers, and that is exhausting, right?
Chris: Yeah. One thing that I want to mention with metaphors in general that I see- a very common mistake in writing is that metaphors need to fit the scene and the atmosphere you’re building.
Wes: And the genre. [laughs]
Chris: And it’s just like, it feels like people are inserting metaphors for the sake of metaphors, without thinking about the mood that they want to create. And so, you just get these really weird effects, where like, I’ll have some sort of picture pop into my mind that just doesn’t match what’s happening.
In my critique of City of Bones, the first book in The Mortal Instruments, there’s a description of this pendant a girl is wearing, and it’s described as being the size of a baby’s fist. [Oren laughs]
Wes: Okay. [laughs]
Chris: And this- you know, City of Bones, it’s trying to be dark; it’s not really dark, but it’s still trying for this. And it’s like, in a club, the scene, and it’s just- you know, I’m now imagining a baby’s fist at her throat. That’s what I imagine when you make these metaphors; even if the whole point was just to identify how big it is, there’s now, in my mind, a baby’s fist there. And it can be a really cool effect if the metaphor fits and you want that sort of imagery overlaid.
Oren: That sounds like something you would get in like, a really dark Conan story- [Chris laughs] -when he’s like, he’s broken into the evil wizard’s tower and is beholding the Evil Emerald of Thu; the size of an infant’s fist. [Wes laughs] Right?
Chris: Well, see, infant’s fist, I’m not even sure that’s dark, because it doesn’t- you know, the size of a beating heart or something; the size of a- you can make it gruesome if you want, but I’m not even sure that- [laughs] -it’s just… A baby’s fist is a really bizarre thing to put in that-
Wes: It’s a weird comparison.
Chris: And I see that all the time with people who are using metaphors. You want to have the right metaphor that evokes the right imagery. The right images.
Chris: [laughs] I know Wes has things to say about imagery. One other thing that I see- less common, actually, but it still can be an issue, particularly in speculative fiction, where it’s not always clear whether or not metaphors are actually literal or metaphors. And usually, it’s most likely to happen at the opening of a work. Usually, once you get into the interior of a work, the risk is a lot less.
But when you’re opening a speculative fiction story and people still have no idea what kind of world you have and what’s possible in that world and what’s not possible in that world, a lot of things that would be taken as a metaphor in a non-speculative fiction work, like, could actually be real.
Wes: Yeah, that’s a great note.
Chris: And I just- the critique I just did ended with like, ‘oh, the storm is coming,’ and I’m like, ‘okay, is there actually a storm coming, or is this just a cliché metaphor? I don’t know.’ [Wes and Chris laugh]
Oren: That actually reminds me of Jade City, which has a really interesting setting; it’s a high fantasy novel, but it’s set with like, a 1960s era of technology. But the story doesn’t actually make that very clear in the opening pages, and in the opening pages, it’s like, a couple of kung-fu badasses go to a teahouse.
And I just assumed that it was old-timey, because it was describing kung-fu badasses in a teahouse, which I associate with watching like, Hong Kong action movies and various wire-fu flicks, stuff like that.
So, when one of the characters- when like, the internal monologue makes a description, it was like, of it being the size of several school buses, I was like, ‘what? Do you know what a school bus is?’ And that really confused me.
And then I figured it out, and was like, ‘oh, this is actually a fairly modern setting that has this teahouse which just happens to be sort of similar to an old-timey teanhouse- or teahouse, excuse me. But that was confusing, like, when the author started putting in modern analogies before establishing modern stuff, I was confused.
Chris: So, Wes…
Wes: Shall I get my rant over with about imagery?
Chris: I want to hear Wes rant about imagery.
Oren: Yes, please.
Wes: Okay. So, what bothers me is that people will say things about pretty much any kind of medium, be it visual- sorry, be it like, tv or film or books, is they’ll say something to the effect of, ‘oh, man! That was such good nature imagery.’ And I’m thinking, ‘No. You mean that there were great images of nature.’ Right?
Oren: Oh, no, those aren’t the same? [Chris laughs]
Wes: No, they are absolutely not the same. And let me tell you why: because imagery is a literary device. It’s a particular one where- I mean, probably the safest thing to equate it to is, imagery is what Chris calls evocative telling, and that’s because imagery uses descriptive language to appeal to and evoke the senses, and so, if you’re talking about imagery, there’s only six types.
You can have imagery that appeals to sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, and internal sensation. That’s it. Those are the types of imagery that we have. And so-
Oren: But what if you were like, a shark, and you were appealing to their weird electromagnetic sense that they have?
Wes: I would love to read that. That would be fascinating.
Oren: Would that be seven, then, in that case?
Wes: Yeah, if you can describe that in human words. [laughs]
Oren: Alright, I’m into it. Challenge accepted. [laughs]
Wes: Challenge accepted. But the other thing is like, people will get lazy with imagery, and so, if somebody said, ‘he looked across the room, and there was a ghost,’ and somebody like, ‘oh, yeah. I can imagine a ghost.’ So, therefore, that is visual imagery. Well, no; that’s just- that’s not good. We’re not painting a particular evocative picture at all.
But if you said something like, ‘the ghost hovered in the air.’ That’s short, that’s simple, it’s telling us what the ghost is doing; or more like, directing your imagination to see what’s happening. If I just said, ‘the ghost was over there,’ who knows what it’s doing. I’m not telling you, and so, somebody can imagine that in any way they want.
Chris: You’re saying there’s a ghost, but you’re not really describing the ghost.
Wes: Exactly. And that is the heart of imagery, is you need to use descriptive language. So, the ghost is an example of visual; and I’ve got another one for each of our other senses.
So, for auditory imagery, you could say like, ‘the florescent light hummed above her.’ You can hear that; a lot of us have heard horrible florescent lights making that kind of sound, so that’s an easy thing to imagine ourselves in that room with the narrator.
Tactile- like, the sense of touch, that imagery, you could say like, ‘the cold-’ sorry, ‘the rough cold stone scraped across her skin.’ Many of us have touched cold rocks; you can kind of feel that scrapiness, that kind of rough texture of it. But I’ve described it in a way that lets me almost feel that sensation as well.
If you talk about smell, also known as olfactory imagery, then you could say like, ‘roses perfumed the room.’ We know what roses smell like, many of us do, but it’s telling you a lot about that room and what’s going on, and maybe there’s other associations with that smell.
Oren: I have a question.
Wes: Yeah, sure.
Oren: If you describe what the inside of like, a condemned manufacturing center smells like, is that olfactory description of an old factory? [Wes laughs]
Chris: Aww, noooo!
Wes: Aww, yeah, he did it. [Oren and Wes laugh]
Oren: I’m sorry, I’m very sorry. [laughs]
Wes: Probably, now is the quick point to interject that puns are a valid literary device.
Oren: Yeah, they are. I’m so vindicated.
Wes: Oren is the master. [laughter]
Chris: Well, we also know that using too many words to say something is a literary device. I think that’s a low bar.
Wes: That’s true. [Oren laughs] Another one that we have is taste imagery, and this one’s fun; we get this a lot. Think about like, food descriptions from Harry Potter, so, things like, ‘the bubbly liquid was crisp and sweet on their tongues. You can kind of imagine that. That’s fun, it’s like, ‘oh, yeah, that drink sounds good.’ It’s not just saying like, ‘they drank lemonade.’ That’s really boring, and it’s not giving me anything fun to play with.
Oren: Pardon me, I have to go reread every Redwall book.
Wes: Redwall’s full of imagery. They are great at like- he really went for that, and that’s why some of those descriptions are so much fun, cause you’re like, ‘yeah, I’m there.’
And the last one is like- kind of appeals to internal sensations. So, examples of this would be like, ‘my stomach turned,’ or, ‘his heart grew cold,’ or things like that, that kind of- a way to try to convey that sense of dread, or love, or something like that, that’s internal. That’s difficult.
Oren: Although, there’s some interesting differences here, because like- for example, ‘his stomach turned,’ that’s like, a pretty reliable- I think most people would have an idea of what that means, what that feels like. But like, ‘his heart grew cold.’ I don’t really know what that means. I see that one a lot, and whenever it happens, I’m like, ‘I guess a bad thing is happening.’
That sounds bad, but it’s never- it’s not clear to me, and maybe it’s clear to other people what that means?
Wes: This is where, when you’re using descriptive language, you really need to pay attention to connotations. Like, ask your beta readers and ask your editors to say like, ‘what associations do you have with this adjective?’ That’s a fair question. ‘Or this noun?’ That’s a fair question, because we can generalize about certain things that if a heart, hearts are associated with life and vibrancy, and if it grows cold, then it’s slowing, and cold is slow and cold is death. But maybe not for everybody.
Chris: To me, that feels more- metaphor is probably not the appropriate- [laughs] -usage here, but that feels like it’s not intended to be literal in any way. I don’t know how much of it’s intended to be symbolic or evocative in some way.
Wes: Well, and that’s why we’re talking about a sixth sense here, and that kind of internal sensation is- it’s almost impossible to do that kind of imagery without using some kind of metaphor, or some other figurative language.
Chris: Right. So, if it was something like, ‘I got the shivers,’ that would just be considered tactile.
Wes: I think- well, I personally would probably subscribe that that would be an internal sensation. It’s like saying you have butterflies in your stomach; that’s also imagery for internal sensation. But if you talked about how like, ‘he started shivering and rubbed aimlessly at his arms,’ suddenly we’re painting a tactile and visual image in describing that moment.
Getting the shivers, I’m not sure if- that’s just not very active phasing, and a lot of the examples that I used are very active in their descriptions. I think only one of them, the bubbly liquid, was- that’s the only one that was kind of a ‘to be’ verb presenting the information. The rest all used verbs more effectively to convey the image.
Chris: Before we go, can- I know it’s getting later; I really want to talk about the Pathetic Fallacy.
Wes: Oh, good.
Oren: Yeah. What is that?
Chris: Okay, let me just say what my understanding so far in my poor attempts to research this in previous years has been, and maybe Wes can correct me? I mean, it sounds like it’s supposed to be an overly sentimental way of describing things in which inanimate objects are kind of personified or have feelings, like saying ‘the skies weeped,’ for instance, cause the skies are not actually literally weeping.
And it also feels like it’s often criticized; like, people don’t like it. And I can see where using a lot of that would feel melodramatic, but it doesn’t really seem bad to me, and so, I’m not really sure, is it actually being criticized as much as I think, and if so, why are people so mad about it?
Oren: It seemed very harsh when I read- like, I looked up an example, and it was like, ‘a pathetic fallacy would be if you said that ‘the lock informed you that there was someone here,’ because a lock can’t inform you.’ I was like, ‘man, pathetic fallacy is awfully strong for that kind of language.’
Wes: I mean- okay, disclaimer, the type of medium you’re writing in, blah blah blah, all that stuff. All those people are wrong. [Wes and Chris laugh] Because, pathetic fallacy is just- it’s just the literary device for personification. And why do we do this? Why do we give human attributes and characteristics to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract concepts?
Because if I say, ‘the sky weeped,’ I’m not saying, ‘the sky opened up with rain.’ I’m not saying that. I am saying that partly, but weeped conveys sadness, and you can’t do that without having this ridiculously long description, and then someone’s going to be like, ‘you’re using too many words there.’ So- [laughter] -to them, I say like, ‘there’s- you should use personification, because it’s fun and it adds vibrancy to language.’
And if we could end on a good example of personification, I’ve got a very short passage from a beautiful short story by Katherine Mansfield called The Garden Party.
Oren: That sounds like a perfect way to end, honestly.
Wes: Okay, cool. So, please listen, and try to pick up on the personification:
“The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A little silver star. She could have kissed it.”
So, are you going to get upset that I’ve- like, Katherine Mansfield personified a bunch of stuff in that?
Oren: Just full of pathetic fallacies. [Chris laughs] It’s tossing it right out of there.
Wes: It’s beautiful! That’s from her short story The Garden Party, about a young girl that maybe goes to hell. So, have fun with that.
Oren: Alright. Well, we are out of time. We are over time, significantly. Those of you at home, if anything that we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will talk to you next week. [closing song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
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