Personification is a subtle literary technique. It can be hard to spot in a text and very difficult to purposefully implement in your own writing. This guide will walk you through how personification is used (and showcase some familiar examples of the device along the way) in order to help you both identify personification while reading and learn how to use it in your own writing.
What is personification?
Personification is a literary device that entails writing about an inanimate object as if it possesses human characteristics. The technique is classified as a metaphor, or a figure of speech that equates two disparate entities for the purpose of creating a comparison, because every instance of personification is essentially just a comparison of two things (i.e., the object you’re describing and the human body). Usually, personification manifests itself at the very basic level of word choice. This technique is best accessed through verbs and adjectives that imply some level of interiority, a thoroughly human characteristic.
The difference between these two example sentences illustrates the power of personification:
“The waves washed onto the shore.”
“The waves danced their way to the sand.”
The message put across by the first sentence is very concrete: the waves are doing exactly what waves do best, moving in with the tide. In the second sentence, however, the waves have a lot more personality. They’re dancing — an action usually reserved only for humans, because it implies the existence of choreography, premeditation and a sense of rhythm that most inanimate objects lack. For that reason, the second sentence has a certain poetic sense to it and is much more charged with emotion than the first. When an author chooses to use personification, they are usually striving for these effects.
Examples of personification.
“Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
— Emily Dickinson, Because I could not stop for Death
In Dickinson’s iconic poem, the concept of Death is personified to the extent that it actually enters into the poem as a character. In giving Death a pronoun — ”he”— and assuming "kind" intent as the reason for his stopping, the abstract, intangible concept of death is all of a sudden transformed into flesh and blood in an instance of strong and impressive personification.
“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!”
— Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Here, Douglass writes an apostrophe to the white sails of the ships in the Chesapeake Bay, filled with jealousy at their apparent freedom. By directly addressing the sails, he already humanizes them a bit with the simple inference that they might be listening. The more explicit personification in this quotation, however, is found in the words “free” and “merrily,” both of which imply that the sails could conceivably feel or move in some other emotional state than the one they seem to currently occupy.
“I am fourteen / and my skin has betrayed me”
— Audre Lorde, Hanging Fire
In this haunting poem about familial relationships, growing up and womanhood, Lorde includes some personification in the very second line, when she writes that her skin has “betrayed” her. Betrayal is certainly a human activity since it requires knowledge of alliances and the conscious choice to break them — and unless Lorde has some really strange skin, hers is likely not truly plotting against her.
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night”
— Journey, Don’t Stop Believin’
This personification is a bit more subtle, because the lyrics to this Journey song do mention “strangers,” who are people. Yet when you close-read, it’s easy to see that the strangers are not the ones “searching in the night” — instead, their shadows are the ones performing that desperate, all-too-human action.
“Hey diddle diddle,
the cat and the fiddle,
the cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed
to see such sport,
and the dish ran away with the spoon”
— Nursery rhyme
There’s a lot of personification going on in this familiar rhyme, from the cat (implied to be) fiddling to the dog laughing. The most obvious of all the personification here is the dish which “[runs] away with the spoon.” The personification of the dish is clear, but since we don’t get any context for its action — running away — it’s ambiguous whether the original author intended to convey that the sentient dish stole the inanimate spoon and beat a hasty retreat or whether both pieces of tableware are animate and chose to elope.
“Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon,
Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned?
Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains;
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?”
The Disney film Pocahontas gives several animals human characteristics, such as Meeko the Raccoon, a greedy little critter with a penchant for theft. Giving animals human personalities is a more blatant (and basic) form of personification, often used in books and movies for children. Disney doesn't just stop with personifying the animals in this move: the lyrics of most songs, like the one quoted above, often include personification too. After all, mountains don’t have "voices," they have echoes; and wolves don’t "cry," they howl. The personification here acts to bring the intended viewers into a magical world, where a mountain could conceivably burst into song and every animal has a story to tell.
“In business, the competition will bite you if you keep running; if you stand still, they will swallow you.”
— William Knudsen, Jr.
Personification is used surprisingly often in business conversations, because it works wonders when a speaker wants to put their point across in an emotionally resonant yet concise manner. In this William Knudsen Jr. quote, the concept of “the competition” is personified in the first sentence as some sort of malignant being, chasing after the intended audience members relentlessly and threatening to "bite" — an activity that certainly belongs to the human realm and also works well to inspire fear in the listener.
“Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it."
— Henry David Thoreau
Perhaps it’s a stretch, but here Thoreau seems to be thinking of “success” as a personified being with the ability to choose when to “come” to each person. Choice and purposeful movement are both capacities that one does not usually attribute to an abstract concept like success, and therefore it seems clear that Thoreau is thinking of success in a more personified manner here.
When do you use personification?
Personification and other forms of figurative language can act as great tools to enhance your creative writing process. The scenarios in which personification comes in handy are limitless; for example, when you want to place specific emphasis on a certain element of your scenery, personification works well because a human attribute given to a mountain or a stream catches the reader’s notice. It similarly works well to highlight items: you can use it to draw attention to objects that will become important later in the story or that act as a mirror of the mood of a certain character.
With all that said, be wary of overusing personification. It’s beautiful and poignant if administered in small doses but can become sensorily overwhelming when you give every item in your prose a mind of its own. All in all, personification is an effective strategy to help readers relate to your writing because a recognizably human element in a piece of writing makes any story all the more compelling.