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Terry Pratchett and the Fantastical Power of Similes

Discworld by nicolscheTerry Pratchett’s Discworld series is celebrated by fantasy readers around the world for its wit, humour, and worldbuilding. Those who enjoy the series, myself included, cannot deny the vividness of Pratchett’s imaginary world, so magically crafted with words and so carefully balanced on the back of a turtle in space.

An entire essay could be written about Pratchett’s worldbuilding skills and how he turned Discworld into a household name. However, in this article, we’re going to look at one element that helped give his stories their famous fantastical flavour. This narrative tool can be overused or overlooked but, once you notice how Pratchett uses it, it’ll be very hard to unsee the impact that it can create in a piece of writing.

So, what is this narrative tool?

The simile.

Rincewind and Luggage on the run by puggdoggA simile is a tool in writing that draws a comparison between two things to make a description more vivid or empathic. ‘She has lips as red as rubies,’ ‘The city was as noisy as a thunderstorm,’ or ‘He ran like the wind,’ are all examples similes. By comparing one thing to another, a writer not only paints a clear picture of a character, setting, or action, but also influences a reader’s feelings towards what is being described. ‘She has lips as red as blood’ has a totally different feeling than rubies, doesn’t it?

Once you know to look for them, you will find that similes are everywhere in the Discworld series. However, Pratchett does not use them without thinking, or haphazardly throw them into any scene for the sake of it. Far from it: each simile in the Discworld series is used for a reason, whether it’s to describe a setting, establish characterisation, or set a tone in a reader’s mind.

One of the best examples of Pratchett’s skill with similes comes from the book Mort. In one scene, Death’s new apprentice Mort is flying over the city of Ankh-Morpork, a location that is frequently featured throughout the Discworld series. As he descends through the clouds on the back of Death’s horse Binky, this is how the city is described:

Ankh-Morpork is as full of life as an old cheese on a hot day, as loud as a curse in a cathedral, as bright as an oil slick, as colourful as a bruise and as full of activity, industry, bustle and sheer exuberant busyness as a dead dog on a termite mound.

ankh-morpork by DawnElaineDarkwood

This whole paragraph is made of nothing but similes, yet is able to create such a distinct atmosphere and description of Ankh-Morpork without describing a single building. One reason for this is because the similes are extremely sensory in nature; we are given how the city sounds, looks, and possibly how it smells given the comparison to old cheese. It addresses all our senses and because of this, readers can create a well-rounded setting in their minds. The similes allow the city to feel alive.

Death with Kitten II by Paul KidbyAnother reason why these similes work so well is that they compare this fantastical city to real world things that we can understand. An oil slick, a dead dog, a bruise; these comparisons give a level of relatability to the city and, indeed, the whole land of Discworld. Pratchett’s use of similes compares the imaginary with the ordinary; the unfamiliar is rendered familiar. This not only makes the world easier for readers to picture in their mind’s eye, but also draws a connection between our world and Discworld, making it feel all the more real to us.

The technique of using similes to render the fantastical as familiar is not limited to this particular description – it can be seen in other Discworld novels as well. There is a good example in Reaper Man where Death – our friendly 8ft skeleton and reaper of souls – is fired from his position and takes up residence at a farm. He is not used to dealing with humanity or socialising, so when his new landlady, Miss Flitworth, comes to check on him, this is his response:

He stared at Miss Flitworth’s frozen, worried, pleading smile like a baboon looking for meaning in the Rosetta stone.

Reaper Man by MarcSimonettiAlthough Death’s exact expression is not described, we know exactly the type of look he is giving. Pratchett allows us to imagine what a baboon would look like as it stares at the Rosetta Stone, and through the simile allows us to impose this onto Death. This gives agency to the reader to create a humorous image for themselves – doubly so when we realise that Death, being a skeleton, can’t actually change his expression.

This example also shows us how similes can put subtext into a piece of writing. Death, despite usually being an otherworldly and unstoppable force, is now in a world he does not understand. So the comparison made between Death and a baboon is not only funny, due to the contrast, but is also an insight into the character and how he is feeling; namely, out of his depth and feeling like a fool. This makes Death that much more relatable to the reader, without the reader even realising it.

The subtle power of the simile is not limited to characterisation. On the contrary, it can be used to create powerful imagery that lingers in the mind of a reader. It can add a splash of colour to a scene that a point-by-point description cannot achieve. For example, here is an extract from Mort describing one of the rooms in Death’s house, with the simile removed:

This is the bright candlelit room where the lifetimers are stored – shelf upon shelf of them, squat hourglasses, one for every living person…

As it stands, this description merely paints an image of the room; bright, covered in candles, shelves on the walls, hourglasses on the shelves. However, the full weight of the scene arrives once we put the simile back in:

This is the bright candlelit room where the lifetimers are stored – shelf upon shelf of them, squat hourglasses, one for every living person…The accumulated hiss of the falling grains makes the room roar like the sea.

Mort by omar rayyanWith the simile added back in, the abstract idea of an hourglass for every human life is given a solid, haunting, sensory comparison. We can imagine the roar of the sea inside of this one tiny room; we can see how each individual life, when collected together, loses its meaning; we suddenly empathise with the number of human lives Death needs to deal with, and thus we can more easily suspend our disbelief when he confesses his desire for an apprentice to help him. With the simile, the picture of the room is now something that we can conjure in our minds, and gives a greater emotional weight to the narrative.

Pratchett’s use of the simile shows us how one simple tool can be used to build a fully-fledged world and characters. Although similes may seem like a common tool to writers – one which can be overlooked, overused, or unappreciated – it’s important to see the effect they can bring to a piece of fiction, especially in the fantasy genre. Terry Pratchett shows us that similes, when used carefully, can impact a fantasy novel in three important ways:

It can make the fantastical more relatable to a reader.

It can make unfamiliar settings, characters and concepts easier for readers to understand.

And it can provide a narrative with a strong emotional subtext, one which will stick with the readers for a very long time to come.

Title image by nicolsche.

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5 Comments

  1. Summer H. Paulus says:

    I loved your analysis of similes Emma! Very informative and I’m definitely going to have to read Pratchett now to experience his vivid writing. 🙂

  2. Richard Marpole says:

    Yep. Great stuff, it’s always worth spreading the good word about Pratchett!

  3. Taylor FitzGerald says:

    I just started reading Pratchett (Guards! Guards!) I laughed for ages at “Her bosom rose and fell like an empire.” Simple but brilliant!

  4. Great article Emma. No one plants a simile seed like Sir Terry.

  5. I think it’s not just a way to make the fantastical feel more relatable. It’s also one approach to make the mundane more alien.

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