Humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time. It is in our nature to share our experiences. Stories allow us to escape into imaginary worlds and transport us to another place and time. So how can you create a story that is visual and can emotionally resonate with readers? Use personification.
Personification is a literary device that gives human characteristics and traits to an inanimate object or nonhuman thing. Even if you are unfamiliar with the term “personification,” you have most certainly used it in your writing and everyday conversations.
No matter what your writing style is, personification is an excellent tool that can elevate your writing. Our goal as writers and storytellers is to craft an engaging story that keeps readers turning the page.
Personification can be found in fiction and nonfiction writing, songwriting, poetry, screenwriting, and oral storytelling. Personification is about bringing life to a non-human entity. It not only spices up your writing with vibrant details, but it also conveys your message to the readers in a visual, emotional way.
Here is an example of personification: “The flowers stood taller, grateful for the rainwater from the passing storm.” The flowers in this example are a nonhuman object that have been given human characteristics. Flowers can’t express gratitude, but readers can identify with this human emotion.
There are many reasons why you should use personification in your writing. It can:
- make a scene come to life (show, don’t tell)
- set the tone and mood
- communicate thoughts and ideas
- elicit emotion
- create a stronger visual
- include sensory details (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell)
Aside from your living and breathing human characters, everything else in your story is nonhuman or inanimate. Here are some examples:
- The toaster jumped out of the toaster.
- The humpback whale sang songs.
- Opportunity knocked on the door.
When you personify a nonhuman object or entity, you conjure up a vivid image in the reader’s mind. That image then translates into a feeling, a vibe, a tone, or a mood. An inanimate object suddenly has feeling and becomes familiar. Readers can visualize what you are describing and are drawn into the scene.
This is the power of personification: making a “thing” relatable.
Personification is a common literary device, and there are numerous examples of it in our daily lives. The reader is more likely to feel connected to the story when we use creative details and imagery. Personification allows a writer to breathe life into an inanimate or nonhuman thing.
Here are a few examples of personification:
• The stars danced in the sky.
• The breeze kissed my cheek.
• The words leapt off the page.
• The wind howled in the night.
• My shoulders cried after my workout.
• The drawer groaned when I opened it.
• The full moon winked through the clouds.
• The car’s headlights glared at the oncoming traffic.
Using personification in fiction can leave a lasting impression on the reader. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is a great example of how to use personification to set the tone and mood. Crane’s use of figurative language tells a somber story about the horrors of war set during the American Civil War.
Here are some examples of personification in The Red Badge of Courage:
• “The army awakened, and began to tremble . . .”
• “[Bullets] began to whistle among the branches and nip at the trees.”
• “The trees began softly to sing a hymn of twilight.”
• “The mournful current moved slowly on, and from the water, shaded black, some white bubble eyes looked at the men.”
There are many examples of personification in Shakespeare’s plays. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tatiana says in Act 3, Scene 1:
The moon, methinks, looks with a watr’y eye,
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.
In this example, the inanimate objects have been imbued with human characteristics and behaviors. The moon has an eye that is “watery,” and the flowers are weeping.
If you have ever taken a creative writing class or worked with an editor, you’ve probably heard the expression, “Show, don’t tell.” I talk about showing versus telling in my article, “How to Write a Memoir.”
Show, don’t tell is a writing technique in which you describe your scene or characters using descriptions, actions, and sensory details. Instead of telling readers what is going on, you show them by using active, descriptive language.
A reader is more likely to become engrossed in a story if they can visualize what is being described and relate to the imagery. When you show what is happening, you make a more personal connection with the reader.
You can use personification to bring a scene to life by showing rather than telling. Here are a few examples:
Tell: I needed to clean the dirty dishes in the sink before dinner.
Show: The dirty dishes in the sink were screaming at me, begging me to clean them before dinner.
Tell: She was nervously waiting in the doctor’s office.
Show: Anxiety gripped her heart as she waited in the doctor’s office, and fear coursed through her veins.
Tell: The trees were tall and moved in the breeze.
Show: The trees stood like powerful warriors, their long fingers waving in the breeze.
Personification versus Anthropomorphism
While personification can be found in all types of writing, many examples can be found in children’s writing because animals and objects are frequently the main subject or characters.
Personification is when a nonhuman object is given human traits in a figurative way. On the other hand, anthropomorphism occurs when a nonhuman object, such as an animal, is given human-like behaviors in a literal way.
The Cheshire Cat speaks, smiles, and acts like a human in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. “We are all mad. I am mad. You are mad,” said the Cheshire Cat.
Many Disney films and stories contain anthropomorphism. Winnie the Pooh is dressed in a shirt. Sebastian from The Little Mermaid talks. Apart from Mowgli, every other character in The Jungle Book speaks and acts like a human.
Try It Out
Now that you know what personification is and how it can be used to improve your writing, try it out! Examine your sentences and descriptions as you revise to see how you can elevate them to the next level.
Be more observant of your surroundings. The next time you read a book, see how many instances of personification you can identify. Take note of them in everyday conversations. You’ll find it easier to incorporate personifications into your writing once you train your eyes and ears to recognize them.