by Lisa Hall Wilson
I’m often asked how to go deeper in fiction. My jam is Deep Point of View, and I get that not everyone loves deep POV. That’s okay. However, if you’re looking for a really quick way to make your setting or characters come alive on the page, personification is one of those tools that every writer can use more effectively.
Personification: giving human-like qualities to non-human things.
The last piece of pie called his name.
The story jumped off the page.
All of these examples give a human-like quality or emotion to something that isn’t human. Pie doesn’t talk. Stories can’t jump anymore than opportunity can knock on something. These are obviously not literal meanings but figurative.
Some types of personification deal in the literal. This is actually a deep rabbit hole on the various types of personification, but I’m not convinced that knowing the labels for these things is all that helpful, so long as you know of them and use them strategically.
Other types of personification are: 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 captures a big idea with just a few words. Here’s how personification can create an immersive and emotional depth for readers.
Giving non-human things human qualities gives readers something tangible they can imagine and empathize with. Think of rain. We often personify rain to help us describe how we feel about it, but also describe its intensity or impact. It’s more efficient and allows us to show others how we perceive the rain. The rain punished everything it landed on, flattening and breaking. The rain welcomed us with a warm mist and a cooling touch. The rain blinded us and drove us off the road.
Can you picture or imagine the intensity or the impact of the rain in each of those sentences? It’s efficient writing, not only because it uses two seemingly unalike things to create a vivid picture, but also because it allows us to imbue emotion into it.
Setting details can reflect the character’s mood, or their impression of the natural world around them. A man running for his life who is hopeful he’ll survive, could find that the trees help him hide and shelter him. The man running for his life who isn’t sure how things will turn out, who maybe feels overwhelmed or overpowered, might perceive the branches pull and tear at his clothes and skin, hoping to slow him down.
The weather could be oppressive, foreboding, or temperamental.
Personification allows us to immerse the reader in the story and especially make the setting come alive. Describe the things in the scene as if those objects expressed an emotion.
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 stands on the edge of the arena, rolling her neck and bouncing on her toes. She looks up at the trees. The leaves wave their encouragement.
How does this character feel about the upcoming battle? Can you now picture the trees with their waving fluttering leaves, and how – to her – the leaves stand in for some deity’s support perhaps?
How a character feels, the mood you’re trying to evoke, is efficiently created with personification. A young woman walks up to a house. How might you describe this walk from the character’s perspective?
The house might lean over her, frown at her, stand immovable against time, or keep secrets. Maybe the house is cheerful or tired. Maybe the house tells lies, allows the people inside to put on a veneer, a false façade. Each of those descriptions would be a slightly different take on how the character feels as they’re walking up to that house. Especially in deep POV, this is super effective in conveying mood, priority and even expressing feelings.
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 character feels? The description also lends itself to a sympathetic view for readers.
If the looming peaks and angry pillars glare at those who dare to trespass, well, that’s a different house altogether. It may not be important that the reader pictures that house exactly as you do. What’s important is that the reader understands how the character feels as they’re walking up to that house.
It’s very easy to fall into cliché and just repeat phrases we’re familiar with. Don’t do it. Surprise your readers! Force them to lean in and care, to sympathize, to cheer for the characters because they know how this feels!
Take the extra step to immerse yourself in your character’s viewpoint. What in their world would be familiar to them that could also show readers what’s important or a priority?
Metaphors and similes with their comparisons are popular, and fairly so, but to take your writing even deeper, consider strategically using personification to pull your reader deeper into the story.
Do you regularly make use of personification in your writing? Which method is your favorite? Please share it with us in the comments!
Make sure to visit Lisa’s free Facebook group Going Deeper Writing Emotions for tips, free content, and other goodies.
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Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog Beyond Basics For Writers explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers.
She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view.
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Fascinating article. Thank you. I rarely use personification when I think about it. It's funny you use a Neil Gaiman quoting Charles Dickens describing fog. I'm writing a story now that has fog as a main character. I won't steal it, but it gives me a lot to think about when describing my fog.
He really makes the fog feel like it's alive, right?
It really does. I just don't want to copy it even though I want to. It will help a lot though.
Brilliant Lisa! I do this, but don't think about it. I just put myself in the scene - smells, feelings and all, then describe it. This is a primer on how to do that with words. Sharing it everywhere!
I love it. It's super powerful, and I use it intuitively, but it was fun to sit down and think about how I use it and the effect it creates.
Excellent and clearly written explanation- thank you. I’m already looking around me (dog, sofa, lamp) and mentally practicing personification.
hahaha - Awesome! Completely immerse yourself in the story and feel your way through setting and description. Avoid just cataloging what you see, how your character FEEL. That helped me.
To add to what others have already said, one of the things I really liked about you article is the point that personification is efficient. It gets a lot done in an economical way ... in contrast to similes and metaphors, which can draw attention to themselves and slow the story down. Thank you!!
I find metaphors and similes get over-used sometimes. You can overuse personification and have it lose its effect also. Use it strategically. These are things I often add in during edits rather than first drafts.
Another brilliant post that really makes me rock back on my heels and THINK about writing. I am weather-obsessed so it appears in my writing, but you gave so many other great examples. Love it!
Awesome. Glad you found it helpful!
You have to be careful about personification in fantasy stories. When magical things are possible, it can be confusing. 🙂
I think personification is amazing in fantasy!! Think of Lewis and the man appearing in the water to destroy the Telmarines charging over the river. Of Tolkien's horses in the river when Arwen was saving Frodo from the ring wraiths. It's used in classic literature in every genre as well as contemporary.
Fabulous post, Lisa!
Your description of the use of rain really drove the point home.
I use personification for emotion. "Jack looked back at the lidless-eyed windows and saw someone peering down at them from the second floor." Creepy things will happen in this building.
Great example. It's very powerful, but needs to be used strategically to be effective.
Oh, this post is a *beaut*!! I love all your insights and examples, but this one's wry humor set me up for the day!
Glad you found it helpful!
I love this. I personify locations and weather quite often. I treat them just as I would any other characters in the story. Giving them life give them a greater ability to get inside the heads of the human characters and mess with their minds.
Yes, some stories use setting almost as a character itself. Diana Gabaldon's first two Outlander book - Scotland is almost a character in each book. Really added depth and richness to the story for me.
Great post, Lisa, with a fresh way of thinking of ways to paint a vivid picture and reveal character. Sharing!
Glad it was helpful and thanks so much for the shares! Very appreciated.
You always inspire me...and make me think real, real, real hard. I'm striving to hit the right notes with my WIP. Here are a couple of questions:
If you're infusing deep POV throughout a novel, does the opening line/paragraph/page need to be deep POV? Or is that the only place an author might slip in some "telling" to help set up the story. I think I know the answer.
Can you give us 3-5 top-level tips to help us do deep POV correctly the first time? For me it seems to be a backend effort, but I'd prefer to draft text more cleanly.
Are inner thoughts a good way to slip in some telling?
Deep POV should work FOR you, not be a template or a prison. If the entire story is in deep pov, then why wouldn't the first few pages be too? I think our tendency is to deliver a lot of info up front and the reader doesn't need to know all of it right now to be pulled into the action.
I'm working on a blog post about the TV series Yellowstone and how the writing feels a lot like deep POV. You're just thrown into the story. Took me three episodes before I knew the names of all the main characters - but that didn't matter. I was hooked well before that.
I did write a post a while ago with those high-level kind of tips. THinking I should update it, but here it is: https://lisahallwilson.com/5-pro-tips-to-write-deep-pov-effectively/
...slip in some telling... Telling should be used strategically, where it's most efficient for the sake of the story. Backstory is another one of those things where our tendency is to give everything all at once, but the reader only needs a portion of it to understand what's going on right now. Backstory should answer one question for the reader and leave them with two more - ideally.
Hope that helps!
Great reminder regarding personification. I've always struggled with relating weather to emotion, this provides another tool to improve on that. Thank you!
I use it occasionally.
Your description made me wonder if I use it; I'll have to check.
But I had another thought: narrator intrusion. Which I avoid at all cost. The difference has to be in how the character is reacting to the setting, etc. I don't want to hear myself, so everything has to be from the character's pov. I would never think of an 'angry rain' - it takes ME out of the story.
I write close multiple third person pov for the mainstream trilogy in progress, and have written close first - but only for a story with a single character. I aim to elicit whatever will make the READER experience the rain as the character, not to tell the reader how the character feels about it.
How the character feels - not the writer or the reader - is the point of deep POV. There is NO author voice, no narration - at all - in deep POV.
This is so good, Lisa, it spoon-feeds me inspiration. (See how good it is?) I'm sharing everywhere!
I enjoyed this so much I signed up to follow your blog.
Lisa, I hadn’t replied on this before, but wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your posts. I have the habit of keeping a few open tabs with information that I find inspirational, and worth a re-read from time to time... especially when I feel I’m slipping into a rut. This is definitely one of those articles. It makes me step back, and look at things with a new perspective... taking time to consider the character’s surroundings, and how that could breathe new life into my writing.
Thanks for all the awesome advice you share. You’re such a blessing!