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.
Make the Setting Instantly Relatable
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 Is Immersive
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?
Amplifies Connotation and Mood by Indirectly Expressing Feelings
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.
Personification Requires Creativity
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.