Personification Can Make Your Writing Come Alive

“girl reading book sitting on sofa” by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

When our two daughters were younger, one of our favorite books for nighttime reading was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. This book chronicled the lifelong relationship between a boy and the tree that loved him. At each stage of the boy’s journey into manhood and, eventually, old age, the tree gives him whatever he needs. This timeless story of love and companionship will endure not only because of the story’s theme and Silverstein’s drawings but also because of the author’s strong use of personification. As a creative writer, you can also use personification to make your writing come alive.

Basically, personification is giving human characteristics to anything that is not human. In other words, when you personify something, you’re making it like a person. In The Giving Tree, for example, the tree talks to the boy, shows him affection, plays hide-and-seek with him, and experiences both happiness and sadness.

“shallow focus photography of dandelion” by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

The personification of nature is also evident in familiar, everyday phrases such as “the weeping willow, the whispering wind, and the nagging cold.” Personification is even more evident in fables where animals are portrayed as if they were people. From your own childhood, you probably remember the story of “The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf” or “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” In addition, most modern cartoon characters — such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Winnie the Pooh, and Nemo — also rely on personification.

Poets, too, make extensive use of this technique. In his poem entitled “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost personifies the narrator’s horse: “My little horse must think it queer / to stop without a farmhouse near.” When Carl Sandberg describes the city of “Chicago,” he writes, “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” And no one who has read Emily Dickinson can forget her personification of death: “Because I could not stop for death — He kindly stopped for me.” As a writer, however, you should realize that personification is not limited to fiction, fables, cartoons, or poetry. You can use personification to enliven your personal stories and your essays.

For instance, if you’re writing about a subject that seems dry, you may want to bring it to life by comparing it to a person. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re struggling with a calculus course. The simple word “struggling” doesn’t quite portray what the course is doing to you on a daily basis, so you might go further and compare the course to a boxer: “That calculus course is beating me up every single day and leaving me bloody and swollen.”

“two man playing boxing” by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

You can also use personification when you’re writing about abstract ideas that are somewhat hard to grasp. If, for example, your instructor asks you to write about wisdom, you could use a metaphor and write that “wisdom is a dear friend who comes with a gift.” Or, you could use personification and write that “wisdom is the janitor who arrives only after I have made a big mess.” As a final example, the Bible describes wisdom in numerous ways, but one particular description portrays wisdom as a woman crying out to those who need her: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (NIV Study Bible: Proverbs 9:5–6).

When most aspiring writers consider personification, they think of it primarily as a technique for professionals: poets, novelists, and essayists. However, if you begin to use personification in your own writing, it may undergo a transformation. Instead of coming across like a dry telegram, your writing may begin to sing and dance and laugh — just like a real person.

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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