Personification: What Is It and How to Use It in Your Writing
- What is personification?
- Why use personification in writing?
- Examples of personification
- Improve your writing with the use of personification
Personification is a form of figurative language. The literary term refers to writing that describes something non-human with human characteristics. To personify is to ascribe human qualities to things that don’t possess them - to make the reader empathize, understand better or immerse themselves in vivid imagery.
You’ll find an explanation of this type of metaphor here, as well as common examples of personification in literature, film and everyday speech. When you understand the how and why of using personification, you'll be on track to becoming a better writer and screenwriter.
What is personification?
The definition of personification is to describe or represent non-human things as having human characteristics. The non-human can be an inanimate object or an abstract idea. As humans, we tend to personify things and concepts, and personification is common in the arts. For example, sins and virtues, life and death, deities, elements, and concepts such as justice or fortune can appear like human beings. Personification can describe cities, countries, corporations or activities with human attributes.
Personification is an anthropomorphic metaphor. As a literary device, it can remain a vivid description or create a whole character and make something non-human come to life. A metaphor is a figure of speech which refers to one thing by mention of another. Like other types of figurative language, such as synecdoche, hyperbole and simile, it functions on the level of ideas - in contrast to other literary devices, such as alliteration or onomatopoeia, which function at the level of language.
Simile: This item looks like it has your name on it. This comparison describes something as if made for someone specific, hence like having their name on it.
Personification: This item is screaming your name. Though saying the same thing as the simile above, the item is personified, because it’s made to address someone like a human would.
Personification in writing creates an image in the reader’s mind. That doesn’t work when the metaphor breaks down and the reader cannot agree to the attribution or comparison. In film, the equivalent would be the suspension of disbelief: if an inanimate object comes to life early on, the audience’s acceptance is much more likely than halfway through the story.
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What is anthropomorphism?
Anthropomorphism goes beyond the attribution of human characteristics to create a metaphor or figurative description and involves literal human traits, such as looks, speech, behavior, psychology or motivation.
Fictional characters often personify animals or inanimate objects anthropomorphically by dressing them up, giving them the faces of human beings and letting them speak in a certain way. Cartoon characters are often anthropomorphic, such as Donald Duck and many figures from the Disney universe. Thomas the Tank Engine and Winnie the Pooh are further examples of characters that blend an animal or object with human characteristics.
In literature, fables use animals acting like human beings to tell a story with a moral or a lesson at the end. In these tales, the traits that humans commonly attribute to certain animals might play a role. A fox, for example, could appear as sly, cunning and witty. Animal Farm by George Orwell also features a cast of anthropomorphic characters that possess language, emotions and a social order.
To illustrate the difference between personification and anthropomorphism, consider the volleyball in the movie Cast Away. Chuck Noland ‘creates’ Wilson when he touches his bloody hand to the ball, giving it a face-like imprint. He personifies the ball by talking to it and keeping counsel, but it remains apparent to the audience this is an act to stay sane. If Wilson were to talk back with his own voice, grow a body or move of his own accord, and viewers were supposed to take this at face value, he’d become an anthropomorphic character.
Why use personification in writing?
If you have primarily anthropomorphism in mind, you might think that personification fits children’s stories and animated films best, yet it can serve its purpose in all kinds of creative writing. Thanks to figurative language, you can make use of personification in your writing to engage readers with vivid images, heighten the drama and make the narrative come to life. Here are more reasons to employ this literary device:
- Personification is an innate human tendency. When readers encounter it, they’re likely to have an intuitive understanding of what is going on.
- You can direct empathy and emotion. Readers will empathize with the personification of a non-human object in the story and experience a character’s feelings towards it.
- This will help you highlight and explain a character’s relationship with an item, an animal, or even an idea or abstract thing. You can illustrate the relationship through both dialog and actions.
- Any relationship can grow and falter. The arc of a personification allows you to show the role or importance of the personified thing in your story.
- Improve your descriptions. Especially for writers struggling with rich descriptions, the simile is their go-to. But then everything is always like something else and these descriptions can become repetitive to readers. When you personify something through figurative language, you can evoke precise imagery.
- Be concise. Screenwriters, in particular, know that format dictates word economy. Anthropomorphic metaphors aren’t necessarily the shortest. Yet because personification is so innately human, its use might offer the most control over the reader’s empathetic, emotional and intuitive response to your lines.
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How to use figurative language in writing: examples of personification
The following personification examples will demonstrate more use cases for this kind of figurative language across various forms of creative writing and language use.
Personification in film
Personification is common in animated films. The works of Disney and Pixar with their animal characters are great examples of anthropomorphism. The animal society in Zootopia, the creatures of The Jungle Book and the family of rats in Ratatouille all display human behavior. But inanimate objects can also become anthropomorphic characters. The snowman, Olaf, and the reindeer, Sven, are sidekicks in Frozen. In the classic Beauty and the Beast, a clock, a teapot and a candelabra talk to human characters, and the whole Toy Story franchise is built on the premise that toys have lives of their own._[Beauty and the Beast trailer](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xD5pcGp62ec)_
In Moana, the sea and nature itself become anthropomorphic characters - one as a protector, the other as a seemingly harsh mother figure. Human emotions become major characters in Inside Out and the personifications of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust illustrate what is going on in a child’s mind._[Inside Out trailer](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRUAzGQ3nSY)_
Personification in screenwriting
Personification in film can happen on screen when a character is interacting with an object like with a human being - above, we mentioned Cast Away and Wilson as one such example. To have a character personify something is a way to show their emotional state, their attachment to or relationship with a thing. The plot has to warrant this action, or this kind of behavior has to be consistent with the character, otherwise, personification might appear overly dramatic or as a cheap plot device.
On the narrative level of the script, screenwriters use personification to set the scene. Your action lines can become lively, menacing, engaging or immersive through verbs, adjectives and nouns that personify.
- His foot is caught by the roots. ➡ Personification: The roots catch his foot.
- The door is sticking as she tries to close it. ➡ Personification: The stubborn door is refusing to close.
- A shrieking sound can be heard. ➡ Personification: A shrieking assaults their ears.
You can add personification depending on which element you want to highlight in your action lines. This will allow you to avoid the passive voice or otherwise be economical with words.
To be precise in your writing, you might have to qualify. The walls are closing in is a feeling we might experience under duress. But when you put it as an action line in your screenplay, do you mean to show that the walls are literally moving? The walls appear to be closing in clarifies the meaning. In that case, shot, angle and lighting can convey the desired sensation without actual movement.
Personification in literature
The short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway is a likely high school study of literature and features a personification of death. On a safari, the gangrene-stricken Harry associates his imminent death with a prowling hyena, and later, a visitor to his tent. He even says that he “could smell its breath.”
Poet, Emily Dickinson, chose the same subject in her lyrical poem Because I could not stop for Death. The lyrical subject meets Death, who travels as a gentleman in a horse carriage and allows the subject to board to begin their journey to the afterlife. The famous opening lines summarize the poem's essence:
Because I could not stop for Death — He kindly stopped for me — The Carriage held but just Ourselves — And Immortality.
The works of William Shakespeare incorporate figurative language, often layering meaning or symbolism. Both Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream personify celestial bodies, comparing the moon to a "watery eye" or calling stars "entreating." Juliet also pleads, "Come, gentle night", which is a common personification in literature, to ask the night or day to come or stay.
The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway is rich in figurative language. Hemingway enhances his descriptions with many similes, comparing the rising of the clouds to the rising of the mountains. These vivid images allow the reader to see the world through the eyes of the main character, Santiago.
When the titular old man himself talks about the sea, we can witness him personify the body of water, a non-human entity, as female. Santiago gives her human attributes, such as being kind and forgiving, harsh and cruel. He also calls the fish and his two hands "brothers" and talks about the human action of inanimate objects and abstract things with “the punishment” of the hook and of hunger.
The figurative language of Hemingway in The Old Man and The Sea is a great example of how you can use human traits in your screenwriting. Using a figure of speech, you can frame a shot without being explicit about a specific shot or angle. Consider: “A small fishing vessel sits on the water, cowering before towering clouds.” Not only does the human action of sitting convey the lack of motion, but cowering contains human emotion that gives us an idea of the size of the boat in relation to the clouds, therefore calling for at least a wide, if not an extreme wide shot.
Personification in common language
Personification occurs frequently in everyday speech, and we rarely choose this type of figurative language deliberately or consciously. We’re quick to assume or call out human qualities. For example, when we call a stuck drawer ‘stubborn’, talk about a car ‘eating’ miles, or say the sun is ‘hiding’ behind clouds.
An idiom is also a figurative expression, comprising of a phrase that commonly has a non-literal meaning beyond its literal one: breaking a leg, spilling the beans, kicking the bucket, laying the cards on the table and leaving no stone unturned are all examples of idioms.
Idiomatic expressions can sometimes make use of personification and assign human ability or characteristics to abstract ideas or non-human things: life handing you lemons and the pot calling the kettle black both describe human actions, whereas throwing the baby out with the bathwater personifies something as valuable as a human baby.
Conclusion: improve your writing with the use of personification
How much figurative language appears in your writing is a question of style. You have license to personify as much or as little as you want in your screenplay, novel or poetry. However, when you have to force this type of metaphor or your figure of speech doesn’t match the rest of your writing, your readers might struggle or turn away.
Many examples of personification are from common language usage or everyday speech and you might use them unconsciously. They can be good writing in the sense that they add the right amount of color, detail or clarity to the passage where they appear.
What is the exact meaning you want to convey, and how complicated is it? Does the figurative language match that meaning or do you have to simplify it? Is the style typical for you or your character? What is the literal meaning of the words and how could a reader misconstrue them? Use these questions to learn to pay attention to personification in writing and become a judge of your own usage.