Personification (per-SAHN-nuh-fuh-KAY-shun) is a technique of figurative language that endows non-human subjects with human characteristics. This figure of speech is a form of metaphor, in that it ascribes the qualities of one thing to another.
Personified animals, ideas, and inanimate objects may exhibit human emotions or perform human actions. “The fire burned with fury” is one example of personification. A fire can’t feel or express emotion, but a writer may use this description to vividly convey the flames’ intensity.
While Merriam-Webster lists the “attribution of personal qualities” as the primary definition of personification, the word has an alternative definition: “embodiment,” meaning the tangible representation of an idea or feeling.
How to Use Personification
Personification is most effective when used with purpose. Writers must first consider what image or feeling they’re trying to create, then craft a sentence accordingly.
Imagine this scene: It’s a pleasant day, and Jack can’t wait to get outside and enjoy it. That description is functional, but it’s not vibrant. Personification can paint a more compelling picture that shows exactly why Jack is so enticed to head outside:
Jack spilled out the front door and onto the lawn. It was warmer and brighter under the smiling sun, where the light breeze ran soft fingers through his hair, than in the stifling house. The birds congregated on the power line conversed among themselves, while the neighbor’s excitable terrier barked a greeting through the fence, his wagging tail begging for attention.
This paragraph paints a lively picture, depicting natural elements as affectionate friends, making it easy to see why Jack’s so eager to be outside. It also implies that Jack feels a certain kinship with the outdoors; the reader can sense how he appreciates the natural life around him.
Common Examples of Personification
Below are some common examples of personification you may have encountered before.
- Stars winked in the midnight sky.
- Wind rattled the windows as the storm raged
- The engine gave one final protest before the car shuddered to a stop.
- Sunbeams peaked through cracks in the clouds.
- Time marches
- The ocean was calling his name.
- The wood canoe was a beauty, with her gentle curves and natural finish.
- The parched soil eagerly swallowed the rain.
- His mind screeched to a halt.
- The biting cold stole his breath away.
All these descriptions are figurative, not literal. The wood canoe, by its very nature, is genderless, but the use of a feminine pronoun reveals how the narrator cherishes it. Likewise, oceans don’t speak, but this personification conveys the narrator’s yearning to visit the sea.
Personification isn’t purely restricted to human attributes, though. Consider these examples:
- Copies of her latest novel flew off the shelves.
- The smile melted off his face.
People and objects can’t fly, nor can they melt or spark. In these examples, personification is pulling attributes from other objects, as these lines evoke images of birds in flight and melting ice cream.
Personification in Idioms
Personification is also common in everyday speech, particularly in idioms.
- New York is “the city that never sleeps.” Cities aren’t living, breathing things, thus they don’t’ need to sleep. But this idiom is conveying how there are always people about, no matter the time of day or night, in this lively city.
- “Time flies when you’re having fun” doesn’t mean time is actually flying. Instead, it’s pointing out that that people tend to forget the clock when engaged with something fun and thus can’t mark the passage of time accurately.
- “Actions speak louder than words” means that a person’s behavior can be more revealing than their words, not that their actions or words literally speak.
Personification and Anthropomorphism
Anthropomorphism is a figurative technique included under the umbrella of personification. Both endow something that is not human with human characteristics. Where personification is more a matter of imagery and metaphor, however, anthropomorphism is a matter of character. It blends humanity with something that’s not human at all.
An anthropomorphized object or animal will behave as human and sometimes exhibit humans’ physical characteristics. Anthropomorphized characters often have the ability to speak, walk on two legs, experience nuanced emotion, and form complex social relationships.
There are several Disney movies that exemplify anthropomorphism. The talking housewares in Beauty and the Beast are one notable example; the humanoid emotions in Inside Out are another.
Zootopia utilizes the most classic definition of anthropomorphism. The movie features animal characters who talk, wear clothes, drive cars, work conventional jobs, and form interpersonal relationships that transcend the boundaries of the natural world. (You wouldn’t find a rabbit teaming up with a fox in the wild, after all!)
Anthropomorphism vs. Zoomorphism
Zoomorphism is the opposite of anthropomorphism. Where the latter gives human qualities to a non-human entity, zoomorphism attributes animal qualities to humans. It can also refer to the ascription of one species’s qualities to another.
Think of Dino the pet dinosaur from The Flintstones; he barks and wags his tail like a dog. Spider-Man is another example of zoomorphism, as his superpowers draw from spiders’ abilities, like crawling along walls or ceilings and harboring the proportionate strength of a spider.
Personification and Pathetic Fallacy
The idea of pathetic fallacy, or “emotional falseness,” was first introduced by British critic John Ruskin. He coined the phrase to describe Romantic poets’ tendency to assign human behaviors or emotions to inanimate natural subjects, criticizing “false” perceptions influenced by heightened emotion. Grief, for example, may cause one to view cloudy gray skies as mournful, indifferent, or perhaps just darker than they are in reality. According to Ruskin, this sentimentally skews a person’s view of the world.
The modern understanding of pathetic fallacy has deviated from Ruskin’s original definition. Particularly in scientific fields, it has become a pejorative phrase that discourages applying human characteristics to natural phenomena because such attributions are not scientific. The ocean is commonly described as cruel, for example, but oceans don’t actually have the capacity for cruelty. So, a critic of such pathetic fallacies would argue it’s inaccurate to suggest otherwise.
Why Writers Use Personification
Personification is a handy technique because it can make an abstract idea more concrete. Describing non-human or inanimate objects through the human perspective helps readers understand them, by linking the narrative to the reader’s lived experience. These connections can encourage readers to see the world or an idea in new ways. They also help the text forge a deeper relationship with the audience.
The idea of Mother Nature is a prime example. Nature is vast, full of complex interactions and processes, but the Mother Nature image allows people to view its component parts as a sort of family dynamic, which makes it easier to understand.
Beyond that, personification is highly illustrative and evocative. It can help readers imagine a setting or scene more vividly. It also packs an incredibly descriptive punch. “The storm raged outside” is much more concise, dramatic, and memorable than “The storm was strong and loud,” for example.
Personification in Media
Personification is just as useful in other forms of media, including music, marketing, and art.
Personification in Music
There are many songs that use personification to create more vivid images or evoke emotion in the listener. Take these lines from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by the Beatles:
I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
Guitars don’t weep, and love doesn’t sleep, but these descriptions enhance the scene, endowing it with a somber, reflective energy.
Personification in Marketing
Personification is more common in marketing than you probably realize. In fact, brand personification is a marketing tactic unto itself. The Pillsbury Dough Boy comes to mind, as do the commercials in which M&Ms walk, talk, and interact with each other.
You can also find examples in slogans, like “Oreo: Milk’s favorite cookie.” While milk can’t have preferences since it isn’t sapient, the slogan plays on childhood nostalgia of pairing milk and cookies to entice consumers to buy the product.
Personification in Art
Artists use personification to make abstractions more concrete, just like writers do. Virtues and vices are often personified in paintings or sculpture, such as the Statue of Liberty or the Civic Virtue fountain, both in New York City.
Death is another concept often personified in art. A popular example is the Grim Reaper, a skeletal embodiment of death armed with a scythe and an hourglass.
Personification Examples in Literature
1. John Keats, “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”
Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite […]
In these opening lines, the poet expresses a desire to be as steadfast, patient, and watchful as a star. Because stars are, generally, always there, Keats’s narrator hopes to stay by his lover’s side with a similar constancy.
2. Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree
This illustrated children’s book depicts the relationship between a boy and a tree. Throughout the book, the tree is personified as female, with human emotions and the ability to speak:
Once there was a tree
And she loved little boy.
And every day the boy would come
And he would gather her leaves
And make them into crowns and play king of the forest.
[…] And the boy loved the tree very much.
And the tree was happy.
But time went by,
And the boy grew older.
And the tree was often alone.
There are several instances of personification in these lines. Feminine pronouns like she humanize the tree, and adjectives like loved, happy, and alone establish the tree’s affection for the boy—she delights in his presence and is lonely in his absence. This enables children to perceive the tree as a person who can reciprocate the boy’s friendship. It further allows children to sympathize with the tree, which gives the story’s ending more emotional weight.
3. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Protagonist Janie Crawford recounts her maturation from girlhood to womanhood in Hurston’s famous novel. During that journey, she meets Joe Starks, and their complicated marriage endures for 20 years before Joe dies of kidney failure. When Janie first learns Joe’s grim diagnosis, she considers death, imagining it as a man:
Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all days with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then.
Hurston fortifies her personification of Death by using pronouns like he and him, referring to Death’s “huge square toes,” giving him possessions like a house and a sword, and describing his performance of human actions like living, standing, watching, and waiting. This image of Death, depicted in the trappings of humanity, further emphasizes that death and dying are beyond any human’s ability to control. It is powerful, timeless, and inevitable, and now it’s coming for Joe.
Further Resources on Personification
“Personification” by the Bazillions blends a catchy melody with informative lyrics to explain common examples of personification to kids.
The House Takes a Vacation, an illustrated children’s book about a house that decides to take a holiday, is a fun example of personification.
Review and identify more than 50 examples of personification to test your understanding of this figurative device.