Personification is a common device used in literature, theater and film to extend human attributes to nonhuman entities, such animals or insects, inanimate physical objects like a car or a train, phenomena like wind and fire, or even abstract concepts like anger and fury.
There are many reasons why creative writers use this fictional device to communicate their thoughts. Some of them include:
- Adding layers of depth to a narrative (e.g. “The wind had a whispering voice that seemed to carry painful secrets”)
- Adding humor to a commonplace situation (e.g. “My car groaned angrily when I tried to start it in the frigid morning”)
- Allowing for more complex topics to be explored (e.g. cowardice portrayed by the talking lion in the Wizard of Oz)
- Delving into human traits that may be too sensitive to portray through human characters (e.g. the class differences between the different animal species in the film Zootopia.)
5 Steps to Add Personification to Your Writing
Personification in literature can be used for both comedic and dramatic effect. Personifying an object or concept can help readers understand it better, as well as making them feel more connected to the subject.
Personified characters in literature also allow us to explore complex emotions, such as love and loyalty, with greater depth than if they were simply metaphors.
Here are 5 steps you can use to add personification to your writing:
1. Identify the concept or object you want to personify
Although technically-speaking anything can be personified, some concepts lend themselves to this literary device better than others.
The best way to develop a “personification muscle” is to read a lot of top literature and see how the pros do it. After going through many personification examples, you’ll begin to develop a feel for how it’s done.
2. Brainstorm qualities that humanize the concept or object
Once you’ve defined the object of your personification, think about the different human traits you want to explore that would be believable to readers.
For example, while the gentle wind “whispering” and the fierce storm “roaring” are believable personifications given the nature of those phenomena, the reverse isn’t (i.e. the gentle wind wouldn’t roar and the fierce storm wouldn’t whisper.)
3. Think of ways to explain these qualities in your writing
When you’re personifying a concept or object in your writing, it’s important to give readers a sense of what these qualities look and feel like.
You can achieve this by thinking about the actions or expressions of the personified object. For example, if you’re writing about a personified sun, you might describe how it looks down on people with warmth and unconditional love.
4. Make sure your personification is consistent throughout your piece
One important thing to keep in mind when using personification in your writing is to be consistent with the portrayal of the qualities you assign to the object or concept.
For example, if you’re personifying one of your characters by describing them as angry or hard-headed, make sure they remain that way throughout your work, unless you make them go through a journey of emotional transformation that’s clear to the reader.
5. Read your writing back out loud
Personification is a powerful tool, but it can easily become cliché or overdone if used incorrectly.
It’s always a good idea to read your writing back out loud to make sure that the personification doesn’t feel forced and that it fits well in your narrative.
Your goal with the use of personification is to add value to your overall work, not to create a side show.
Is Personification the Same as a Simile?
No. Unlike personification, where you’re giving a non-human entity human qualities, such as feelings or emotions, a simile is a simple comparison used to create a contrast that’s easy for readers to relate to, typically using “like” or “as” as a conjunction.
For example, “My heart started pounding like a drum after she startled me” is a simile. “pounding like a drum” is being used here to describe a startled person, not to personify their heart.
Is Personification the Same as a Metaphor?
While both personification and metaphors are devices used in literature to create a deeper connection with readers, there is a key difference between the two:
Personification uses human qualities to describe non-human objects or concepts, while metaphors use non-human objects or concepts to describe human qualities.
For example, in the line “The wind was howling for its dinner,” the wind is personified as an animal that’s hungry and seeking food.
On the other hand, in the line “He had a heart of stone,” the quality of having a heart (which is a human quality) is being described metaphorically as cold and closed up by comparing it to an inanimate object often associated with impenetrability.
How Is Personification Used to Develop a Character In a Story?
Personifying an object or concept allows readers to better connect with it, making them feel more invested in the story. Personifying characters also allow for more complex emotions to be explored.
Here are five tips you can use to personify a character in a fictional story:
Tip 1. Think about qualities that make your character unique in your story, such as traits and motivations. Why is this character instrumental to the plot of the story?
Think about the animal spirits used in many popular fantasy stories, which are often portrayed as a metaphysical extension or spiritual complement of their human companions.
Or, for example, the candelabra, tea pot, clock, and so on, in The Beauty and the Beast, that are human souls trapped inside inanimate objects due to a magical spell.
Tip 2. Think of ways to explain how your character interacts with their environment.
When you’re writing about a character, it’s important to think about how they interact with their environment. This includes both the physical and emotional environment in which they live.
For example, you might want to describe how a character feels when they’re in a particular setting. Or, you might want to describe how a personified character reacts in a human-like way when they see or experience certain things.
Tip 3. Give your character a relatable voice in order for readers to easily connect to them and not just see them as the object they really are.
For example, give them a unique angle — you can make them funny, adorable, frightened, wise, and so on.
Tip 4. Show your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions through body language and dialogue.
In doing so, you’ll make them feel more real to readers and help them to connect with your characters on a deeper level.
Here are a few things you can do to achieve this:
First, make sure that you’re using strong verbs, adjectives, and adverbs to bring the character’s emotions to life. This will help readers feel what the character is feeling, which in turn will help them understand their thoughts and reactions.
Second, use dialogue to reveal your character’s inner thoughts and feelings. This can be done by having your character express themselves in a way that gives readers a glimpse into their mind.
Finally, use body language to show your character’s emotions and reactions. This can be done by having the character physically indicate how they feel through their movements or facial expressions.
Tip 5. Create a unique physical appearance that reflects your character’s personality.
When creating a character’s physical appearance, it’s important to think about how their personality affects the way they look.
For example, if a character is shy and introverted, they might have softer facial features and be smaller in stature. Alternatively, if a character is bold and outgoing, they might have a more angular face and be very tall.
It’s also important to think about how the character’s body interacts with their environment. For example, if a character lives in a cold climate, they might have a thicker coat of hair to keep them warm, and so on.
Personification is a powerful and versatile literary device that can be used to great effect in literature, scripts and screenplays.
Personifying objects or concepts allows audiences to better connect with them and explore complex emotions, such as love and loyalty, with greater depth than by using metaphors.
Personification can also be used for comedic or dramatic effect, allowing readers to relate to otherwise taboo subjects in a humorous yet meaningful way.
Use the above steps and tips to give personification a try in your next creative writing project!
Harry Wallett is the Founder and Managing Director of Relay Publishing. Combining his entrepreneurial background with a love of great stories, Harry founded Relay in 2013 as a fresh way to create books and for writers to earn a living from their work. Since then, Relay has sold 3+ million copies and worked with 100s of writers on bestselling titles such as Defending Innocence, The Alveria Dragon Akademy Series and Rancher’s Family Christmas.
Harry oversees the creative direction of the company, and works to develop a supportive collaborative environment for the Relay team to thrive within in order to fulfill our mission to create unputdownable books.
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