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Personifying the Dead

Updated on March 14, 2015

Personification gives creative writers an amazing array of flexibility. It allows us to bring depth to our descriptions by assigning human characteristics to inanimate (well, dead) objects. It works for animals too. Adding this creative writing tool to your writer’s toolbox can add a richness of depth to your prose that might otherwise read stale and flat.

So what does personification look and sound like? Here’s an outrageous example:

A sharp fart of lightning splinters the night and the clouds belch a stomach-rumbling growl.

Now, I ask—does lightning fart? Do the clouds belch? No.

Sure, this is a good example of personification, but unless you are writing a comedy, it's best to use personification with a tone that reflects the genre of fiction you are writing. But with the example above, you get a good sense of how personification works. Using personification, I’ve given life to something that on its own, could never reflect human qualities.

Check out this image below for some other fine examples of personification.

Other Examples of Personification

Source

Setting the Mood

When incorporating personification in your prose, be sure to use it in such a way that amplifies your subject. For example, to set the mood in a horror, would you use happy descriptions to personify a dreary, frightening mood of a cemetery? Absolutely not. Here’s how not to do it:

She steps lightly between the tombstones. To her left, the sun crawls gently to the horizon, seeking a comfortable place to rest for the night; its light paints the marble in ribbons of daisy yellow. To her right, a curious squirrel chitters happily, as two mockingbirds mimic one another as they dance from one tree to another.

On its own, this paragraph would work great within the right genre…say, a romantic interlude between lovers forbidden to see each other—meeting in the only place they feel they won’t be caught. It would even work to set up our female character visiting the gravesite of someone she loves and respects.

But this is supposed to be a horror: it’s supposed to reflect her fright and set an air of creepiness for the reader. Let’s try this again:

She steps hesitantly between the leaning tombstones. To her left, the moon creeps over the horizon, its bloody light paints the marble with crimson ribbons. To her right, an unseen creature garbles menacingly as somewhere within the reaching limbs of the oak above her, an owl repeatedly asks her, who are you and why do you dare encroach here.

There, I think that might set the tone a little better for a horror. Can you identify the use of personification? The word leaning in the first sentence is a little of a stretch because inanimate objects do lean; but how about the use of the word creeps to describe the moon rising above the horizon. I could have just said that the moon rises over the horizon, but by substituting the word creeps, I give the sentence a more menacing essence—as if the moon is sneaking up on someone.

In that same sentence, I use bloody to describe the light, and then immediately tell the reader that the moon paints the tombstones with crimson ribbons. Finally, there is the unseen creature garbling and an owl that speaks. The owl doesn’t really speak, but we are all familiar with the owl’s “Who—Who?”

Now that I’ve brought up a talking owl, can you guess the genre of writing—or even film—that uses drastic personification to help tell the story? Cartoons are some of the most successful and recognizable sources of personification around. Talking mice, candles, sponges, and dogs are all examples of the use of personification in both film and prose. Two of the most well-loved children’s books of all time revolve around the use of personifying animals: Charlotte’s Web and Watership Down. Both are examples of taking personification to the extreme, but the genius minds behind these stories make it work.

I hope this brief tutorial on personification will help you add depth to your creative writing ventures by subscribing inanimate objects with humanlike qualities and feelings. Now, whether you try using personification subtly in your serious prose or you want to take it to the extreme, it’s time to go write.

Personification

What's your favorite use of personification in your own writing?

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