I’m often asked HOW to go deeper in fiction. Even if you’re not writing in deep POV, there are always places in many scenes where you’re looking to show insight/motivation/desire, use subtext, create setting – in a deeper way. You’re setting or characters come alive on the page. Personification is one of those tools that every writer can use more effectively.
Personification is giving human-like qualities to non-human things.
The last piece of pie called his name.
The story jumped off the page.
Pie doesn’t talk. Stories can’t jump anymore than opportunity can knock on something. These are figurative meanings, but there’s a lot of variety and uses for personification and is a great way to be economical with your writing.
Personification can be used in a variety of ways: anthropomorphism (a non-human animal, object or deity literally acting like a human), pathetic fallacy (attributing human feelings to the natural world), embodiment (a person or thing is representative of an abstract concept – she is integrity itself), etc.
Personification is efficient – it can create both setting and mood for instance. A simple phrase can carry a lot of weight with readers and create mental pictures.
Use Personification For Setting
The environments we find ourselves in can be varied and particular, but by infusing those everyday things with emotions or human qualities, we add emotional depth to our writing. You can avoid the dreaded lists of description by using personification to show how your character is feeling, what they think/feel about the place they’re in or what they’re about to face. Show what the character is focused on or prioritizing.
I live in Canada and we have many descriptors for snow: whiteout, blizzard, flurry, squall, powder, slush, packing, frost, flake… Each descriptor dials in on intensity, impact/disruption, potential for damage, etc. Snow can cover the land in a crisp clean blanket, trace every branch with glittering frost, or cause multi-car pileups and kill with hypothermia. Now imbue some emotion or human qualities into those pictures.
The snow danced in the air, melting on my skin like a soft cool kiss.
The snow pelted my face, a thousand tiny needles freezing my face on impact.
Personification gives the setting mood, tone, and intent. How your character perceives the world around them, is it for them or against them, can show the reader the character’s mood, priorities, expectations, etc.
A man running through the woods for his life could perceive that the trees hide and shelter him. Or, he could interpret that the branches pull and tear at his clothes and skin, slowing him down. Be intentional and strategic with your word choices.
Personification Provides Immersive Sensory Details
Neil Gaiman writes, “Personification is an effective tool for placing the reader in the story with a 360° view of the setting. In Bleak House, Charles Dickens describes a thick fog settling as rolling, hovering, creeping, and ‘cruelly pinching’ the toes and fingers of a boy.” (source here)
A warrior waits on the brink of a battle. How do they feel about what’s to happen? About why they’re there? How do previous battle experiences influence their priorities, goals, motivations, and fears? You could use backstory, you could use a flashback, or you could use personification.
Zerynthia bounced on her toes and cracked her neck. Sucked in a long breath and exhaled. The leaves waved their encouragement and the sun pushed away the rain clouds and chased off the lingering shadows.
Can you picture her on the edge of battle, ready but nervous, and the trees with their waving fluttering leaves? The sun could stand in for some deity’s support perhaps. How does she feel about being there, about how her chances in the battle?
Personification Uses Subtext And Connotation
Subtext is what’s going on beyond what’s been said – it’s black-belt writing level. Use personification to show how a character feels, create a specific mood. Use connotation, the baggage that comes with a word beyond it’s surface meaning to evoke imagery and/or emotion.
If a character is in a forced labour camp, that invokes a particular kind of image. If the character is in a concentration camp, the connotation of that sends us back to 1940s Nazi Germany, even though technically a concentration camp was often a forced labour camp. See how connotation works?
Your character walks up to a house. How you describe that walk, the house, the weather, all of it creates this immersive effect for readers.
The house might loom, glare, impose its shadow, stand immovable against time, or keep secrets. Is the house cheerful or tired? Maybe the house has a veneer, a false façade? Does the character trudge, skip, drag their heels?
Using connotation, each of those descriptions add additional meaning on top of the personified meaning. The house that looms lends the impression of dread, vulnerability, inadequacy, shame, etc. That same house could stretch up to the sky stalwart against the effects of time. To a character who hates change, that might mean something comforting. To a character fighting tradition, this upcoming scene would feel like an inevitable failure is about to happen.
If the tired house leans over the broken walk, do you need to describe every broken shutter or missing shingle for the reader to understand how the how the house looks, or how the character perceives it? What’s fun is to then juxtapose the POV character’s perception of something against another character’s. The tired house with the broken walk might evoke hopelessness or dismissal from the POV character, but to another character that house offers opportunity, restoration, excitement.
Personification Easily Falls Into Cliché
Be vigilant to avoid cliché unless you’re using it intentionally to add meaning. Always build in surprise for readers. Give readers two plus two, don’t simply tell readers the answer is four. Show what the character takes in and let the reader do the math. Create an immersive experience where the reader has to lean in and care, to sympathize, to cheer for the characters because they know how this feels!
Emotions are universal across time and geography. The expression of those emotions, the understanding, social acceptability, of emotions is what changes. The reader may not know what it’s like to have a sword in hand and fight Vikings trying to destroy their village, but they understand being the underdog, they understand loss and fear.
Do you regularly make use of personification in your writing?