The word “personification” means, literally, “to make into a person. This is when we describe non-living things with human description. For example:
The trees moaned in the wind, reaching out blind fingers to caress us as we walked by.
Trees can’t really moan, of course, since they don’t have mouths. We are saying that the sound of the wind in the branches is like a moan. In the same way, trees have branches not fingers and of course they are blind. So why say it?
Why Use Personification?
Here are several reasons why you might want to use personification in your story.
1. Increase your options for descriptions.
Look around the room and pick an object. How can you describe it? You can talk about its size (e.g. big, small), shape (e.g. round, square, pointy), color, or material. You can also mention other senses, such as how it feels or sounds or smells. There are other things we could mention too, but the point is that objects are not that complicated.
People, on the other hand, are very complex. Think about someone you know well and all the ways you could describe them. For instance, there are emotions (e.g. happy, sad, angry, bored), personality traits (e.g. kind, silly, cruel, brave), plus many other ways.
For example, it we were going to describe clouds, we might say:
Large, white clouds drifted across the sky.
This is fine, but there is not much else we could say about clouds. Now let’s add personification:
Fat clouds floated lazily in the blue expanse of the sky.
This creates a mental image of clouds as fat men floating in a pool which is much more vivid than just describing things as they are. The point of description is to paint a picture for the reader and so the stronger, more vivid they are, the better. Of course, as always, you need to be sure that the mental picture you are creating is the one you want. Which leads to the second reason.
2. Add atmosphere and mood
Have you ever watched a scary movie on mute? It’s not nearly as scary because you can’t hear the music. The music in any movie is there to help guide your feelings in that particular scene, whether it is slow music for sad scenes or upbeat music for happy scenes.
Writing doesn’t have music but there are many ways to create a mood or feeling in your writing. One way is with personification. This is because people have feelings, but objects don’t. So by describing objects as if they were human, we can bring more mood into the scene.
Let’s take a scene of a boy walking home in the rain. We will look at it two examples where the action is the same but the feeling is totally different based on the description.
The city muttered and whispered with falling rain. Trent walked along the flooded sidewalk, stepping between the puddles restless with the strike of raindrops. Buses and taxis growled past, each on their own important errand. The trees of Howard Park sagged like lines of hanged corpses along his path. Even the light had a yellowish tinge that spoke of rot and decay.
The songs of the city were everywhere as Trent walked along the clean-washed sidewalk and stepped between the puddles, their surfaces bouncing with the rhythm of plump raindrops. Buses and taxis sprinted past, racing each other to the next light. The trees of Howard Park bowed and waved along his path, cheering him on, on this most wonderful of all days. Even the light had a rich, golden quality to it.
3. To Create a New Character
In the very first Writing Corner, I talked about conflict since that is very important to fiction writing. One type of conflict is with nature, such as a man trying to get home in a snowstorm or survive a volcanic eruption.
In this type of story, there are no bad guys, no one to fight against. However, it is much more interesting to read a story about two people battling than about one person fighting natural forces. Because of this, we can give that natural force (like a storm or an earthquake, or a mountain) a personality to make it into a character that the main character needs to defeat. This will make it more interesting to read. Take the example of a man caught in a snowstorm
Lorne kept walking on aching legs. The temperature had dropped to below zero and the wind and snow caused his skin to go numb. It was making it hard to breathe and he had to fight the rising panic that he would never make it home.
Lorne was fully in the clutches of the storm now. It screamed around him, tearing at his skin with icy claws and battering the breath from his body. He fought through it, battling the wind with every step.
How to Use Personification
Humans have a lot of qualities that could be used for personification, but we’re going to look at three categories here.
1. Human traits and emotions (Adjectives)
Think about your best friend and what they are like. Most of what you think of will be adjectives, things that make up their personality, such as they are kind, ambitious, hard-working, etc. Another type of adjectives that only apply intelligent things is emotions, such as happy, sad, angry, etc.
When you use these adjectives, as with all personification, make sure that the mental picture you are creating and the feeling are both right. If not, it will cause confusion for the reader.
The cruel mountains (hard, cold, causing pain, not giving food or shelter)
A lazy summer day (silent, nothing moving)
A ravenous forest fire (almost consuming, never satisfied, not only eating but destroying)
A shy flower (bowing down, hiding its blossoms like a person hiding their face)
2. Human anatomy (Nouns)
Another way to use personification is to use parts of human anatomy onto non-living objects. This one is a bit more harder since you usually need to find similarities or it will be confusing. Here are some examples of similarities:
Eyes → windows, doorways, any opening could see like an eye, to give the impression of seeing or watching
Ears → the same as with eyes abut giving the impression of listening
Mouth → openings but usually doors or larger entrances where something could enter (caves, tunnels, portals, holes)
Neck → any narrow part between larger parts
Arms → things that go around, such mountain ridges, blankets, fog
Fingers → branches or long, thin things that reach out
Feet → anything at the bottom of something tall (foot of the mountain, building, tower, etc.)
You would think that you could use feet to talk about movement, but the problem is that no non-living thing actually moves in the same up-and-down action as feet. So while you could, for example, say the feet of the car pattered swiftly over the road, the mental image that creates is confusing and we start to think of a fantasy car that has real feet, like the Luggage in Discworld.
3. Human actions (Verbs)
The last way we will look at to add personification to your story is with verbs. There are some verbs that are only done by humans, or at least by living things. We might say that a river runs but a river can’t really run since it has no legs. It can only flow. This is an example of personification that is so common that we don’t even think of it. Here are some other examples.
The wind whispered in the trees.
Darkness stole over the land, creeping from house to house.
Butterflies danced and frolicked in the early morning sunbeams
The breath escaped my body in a frightened squeak.
Note: although it’s common to use speaking verbs (e.g. whisper, murmur, shout, scream) with non-living noises, it is also possible to use actual dialogue. This is bordering on fantasy since you are imagining what the wind or the rain or the passing train is saying. However, unless it is a fantasy story where everything is alive, the reader will probably understand that this is just the feeling the sound is making, not actual spoken words. For example:
“Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep,” the train whispered to me as my eyes got heavy.”
Now it’s your turn
- As you go through your day, make a habit of thinking how to describe various objects you see. What human qualities could you describe them with and how would that fit into a story.
- Next time you read a story, look for ways that the writer uses personification in their story. Does it make the description and action more vivid?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.