In creative writing, you have a lot of freedom that you don’t have in other kinds of writing, like academic and business writing. You don’t have to be objective or literal in your creative writing—if the most accurate way to describe your furniture is to give each piece its own personality, you can do that. And when you do that, you’re using a form of figurative language called personification.
Personifying an object means figuratively describing it with human traits in order to craft a vivid image of that object in your reader’s mind. While describing your couch as brown or corduroy shows the reader what the couch literally looks like, describing it as forgiving gives the reader a strong sense of what it feels like to sit on that couch.
What is personification?
Personification is one of the many literary devices writers use to make their writing more engaging. Other common literary devices include synecdoches, metaphor, and onomatopoeia. With personification, you emphasize a non-human’s characteristics by describing them with human attributes. That non-human can be an object, an animal, or even an idea or a concept. Here are a few personification examples:
- She sat down at the tired, overworked desk.
- Coming home from the lake empty-handed, I figured the fish colluded to avoid me.
- The child’s stare begged me to take him out for ice cream even though I’d already said no.
Personification isn’t limited to one part of speech or type of phrase. You might come across personification expressed as a verb, an adjective, or even a whole phrase. Take a look at some of the different ways you can work personification into your writing:
- The image of a cozy hammock on a tropical beach spoke enticingly to him.
- The perfectly sun-kissed strawberries were calling my name, so I bought them to go with dessert.
- More birds joined the chorus, turning the sparrow’s solo into an ensemble performance.
Writers frequently use personification in conjunction with other literary devices. Here are a few pairings, with the personification bolded and the other literary device italicized:
- “Meow,” the cat explained, arguing why I should give her another treat. (“Meow” is onomatopoeia.)
- Their paintbrush was their teacher and, like a teacher, guided them through the challenges they faced on the canvas. (“Like a teacher” is a simile.)
- The courthouse stood tall, looming over them as they waited outside for their trial to begin. (In this example, “stood tall, looming over them” is both personification and symbolism, with the courthouse’s imposing appearance symbolizing the government’s power.)
Why is personification used?
When you personify an object, animal, or anything else that’s not human in your writing, you make that “thing” feel more human. By humanizing a non-human through personification, you can do several things:
- Make it easier for readers to empathize with it
- Make a human character’s relationship with the non-human clearer to readers
- Make it easier for the reader to empathize with the human characters in the story
- Demonstrate the non-human’s role in the story more clearly
And, personification is fun! It livens up dramatic and narrative writing through engaging figurative language.
Although writers use personification in all kinds of creative writing, you’re most likely to come across it in children’s stories. A big part of this is that kids’ stories tend to feature animals and objects, rather than people, as the characters.
History of personification
Personification has existed for millennia. For just about as long as people have been telling stories, we’ve been using personification to make the concepts in those stories more relatable.
One early writer to discuss personification, then referred to as prosopopoeia, was an ancient Athenian orator named Demetrius of Phalerum. At the time of his writing, prosopopoeia was a well-established literary device and could be found in a variety of works.
Early examples of personification include images of Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory personified, on Roman coins and architecture. Personification was used widely in ancient Rome, with virtues and specific Roman cities personified on coins and in art.
Other early examples of personification, specifically in a literary context, include the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse featured in the Bible. In Revelations, a book describing the events of the Apocalypse, the divine’s punishments for the people on Earth are personified as four men riding on horseback, bringing various tragedies to the world.
Throughout the following centuries, cultures around the world continued to use personification and allegory to communicate important ideas through stories and symbolism. One relatively recent historical example is Bharat Mata, the personification of India as a goddess. This personified figure has roots in the nineteenth century and gained popularity through the Indian Independence movement. Bharat Mata is just one of the personified national figures depicted in art and used to symbolize cultural movements. Others include Uncle Sam, the Merlion, and Britannia.
Examples of personification
You’ve encountered personification in a variety of settings. You’ve probably used it before in your speech and writing, even if you weren’t familiar with the term “personification.” If you’ve ever said something to the effect of “the computer doesn’t want to cooperate,” you’ve used personification.
We’ve used personification a bunch on the blog, too. Here are a few examples we’ve used in the past:
- “The heart wants what it wants—or else it does not care . . .” —Emily Dickinson. (See Literary Devices: The Ultimate Guide.)
- The clock glared at me menacingly. (See The Ultimate Guide to Phrases.)
- It was a joyful bouquet. Each flower had a distinct, vibrant face, and together, they were a happy choir of enthusiastic friends, ready to break into song at any moment. (See How to Take Descriptive Writing to the Next Level.)
You’ve also encountered personification in literature and poetry. Here are a few famous examples:
- “Blackberries . . . I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.” —“Blackberrying” by Sylvia Plath
- “There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s. . . . . It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in.” —The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
There are many examples in popular music as well:
- “Do you recall what was revealed the day the music died?” —American Pie by Don McLean
- “You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes.” —Thriller by Michael Jackson
And it shows up a lot in everyday phrases and expressions:
- The city that never sleeps.
- Howling wind
- Actions speak louder than words.
If you’ve ever watched a cartoon and seen an object briefly “come to life” in order to illustrate its characteristics or relationship to a character, you’ve seen animated personification. Take a look at this example from The Simpsons.
What is the difference between personification and anthropomorphism?
When you watch an animated film starring talking animals, you’re seeing personification in action, right?
Actually, no. What you’re watching is an example of anthropomorphism.
Anthropomorphism is a non-human character behaving in a human-like way. For example, Mickey Mouse is an anthropomorphic mouse. Spongebob Squarepants is an anthropomorphic sponge.
In contrast, personification is brief, generally an isolated action or description, and serves to provide a description or add dramatic or poetic effect. The titular raven in Poe’s poem The Raven is personified, not anthropomorphized, because the poem’s narrator is the one assigning it humanlike traits by “hearing” its speech, rather than the raven itself being a talking bird.
Basically, if the humanlike traits are figurative, it’s personification. If they’re literal—like Tony the Tiger saying “They’re grrrrreat!”—it’s anthropomorphism.
What is personification?
Personification is a type of metaphor that describes non-humans’ looks, actions, and purposes with language typically reserved for human characters.
What is an example of personification?
- That bike just wouldn’t quit.
- I could feel the crows snickering, mocking me, for bringing such an underwhelming gift.
- We loved our house, but our house didn’t love us back.
Is personification figurative language?
Are personification and anthropomorphism the same?
No. Personification uses figurative language to illustrate a scene or show us a character’s perspective:
- The church bell sang loud and clear across the sky.
- My pen fought back, determined not to give up any of its ink when I needed it most.
- Every plant in the garden stood at attention, awaiting the next command from the sun.
Anthropomorphism is a non-human character behaving in a human-like way. This can mean wearing clothing, speaking, or doing actions typically associated with human beings. For example, the speaking (and sometimes singing and dancing) clock, candleholder, teapot, and the like in Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast are a cast of anthropomorphic objects.
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