Why, when and how to use personification

If you write fiction for adults, you may heard this advice about personification: Don’t use it.

Personification has a justifiably bad reputation. It’s been used so badly, so often, that some readers (including some editors) have lost all taste for it. That means it’s out of fashion, and you use it at your own risk.

Still… maybe you’re not entirely ready to throw away a technique that has roots going back to pre-historic times. Or maybe, like me, you’re just a little suspicious of advice that’s completely open-and-shut.

I thought I’d dig a little deeper into this advice. After quite a bit of reading and discussion, this is what I’ve come up with. I’d be interested to know if you have a different perspective.

Why use personification?

You can express yourself without personification, so why use it? Because real people personify things. That’s it. You use it, and everyone you know uses it. It’s so easy to personify things that you do it without even thinking about it. Personification is just the natural human tendency to project our own feelings or characteristics onto non-living things.

When and How…

The problem is that personification in fiction is often forced, exaggerated and clumsy. The author is trying too hard to sound literary, or to come up with a new and different way of describing something. In real life, our use of personification is effortless and uncomplicated. It comes naturally out of the way we view the world.

If you decide you want to use personification in your fiction, here are some guidelines that should help you use it well:

In real life, the vast majority of personification is emotional. A typical example would be something like “Can you open this damn jar for me? It’s being stubborn.” There are exceptions, of course. A phrase like “Your office has been trying to reach you” is personifying the office even though it isn’t emotional.

Since it’s emotional, it has to come from a character. It should reflect the way that character responds to the world. This means that your reader will infer that your narrator has an emotional perspective if you have the narrator use personification. If you’re trying to convey that your narrative voice is objective and unbiased, then you’re giving us conflicting information if that voice uses personification.

Keep it simple. Real personification is immediate and direct. Your characters are not going to come up with elaborate forms of personification unless they’re poets, songwriters or comedians who are deliberately composing something. Always ask yourself if a real person would say this.

Don’t use it frequently. We all do it, but we don’t do it continuously. Even when we are doing it, we don’t always verbalize it, which is important to how personification is presented in fiction. Remember that stubborn jar? Your character doesn’t have to say out loud that the jar is being stubborn to personify it—he might just get mad at it and “punish” it by banging it on the counter.

Avoid clichés. In the name of all that’s holy, no one needs to read about waves dancing in the sun, or the sun dancing on the waves. No one wants to hear that your guns “bark” or “cough” when they’re fired. This should be a pretty easy guideline to follow if you stick to using personification the way that real people use it, since no one actually says things like that anyway.

Just for fun, here’s a 200-page academic study titled Recognition of personifications in fiction by non-expert readers that serious language nerds might find interesting. Among other things, it discusses the different types of personification.

(Seriously, what could better represent the topic of personification than a thinking statue? I took this picture in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. This is The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin… one of the 28 castings of it that are scattered around the world.)

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