Perceiving Personification

Personification is a type of metaphor or simile where we give something that isn’t human human traits. Such as comparing windows to eyes that are watching us, or saying a car is temperamental or quirky when a machine doesn’t have a temperament simply a mechanical fault.

This gets slightly more complicated if we’re referring to animals because living things have personalities, however we may depict their behaviour in a way that’s a little more human than animal. For instance if we write a cat cocking its head to the side is it being disapproving or thinking something else entirely and we’re imbuing it with a sense of disapproval? I would suggest that when we try to apply personification to animals really it’s more a form of characterisation. When our fictional cat disapprovingly cocks its head to the side we may say this is a human trait but it becomes a trait we have given our fictional cat. At this point are we making a cat more human or making the cats character more rounded? I suspect cat owners would probably say the latter and I’m inclined to agree.

However, when we describe a car as making a sound that appears to suggest disapproval after a character has spoken the car isn’t thinking what a character said is ridiculous. The character’s perception of the car’s sound is a reflection of their own feelings. Perhaps they’ve said something embarrassing or come up with a plan they think is unlikely to succeed, this affects the way they interpret the world around them. Suddenly a car, which has no mind of its own, is thinking disapproving thoughts because they feel doubtful.

It’s the same when a house’s windows appear like eyes or branches like fingers when the character’s interpretation of them has changed, usually due to circumstances. In the day the windows and branches may just be windows and branches but at night they become something more. This could easily go the other way if there’s something unsettling about the place during daylight rather than at night. The point is that the personification reflects the character’s feelings and the atmosphere we’re trying to create.

Characters will interpret their surroundings in the same way they would interpret people’s behaviour. This is part of what makes personification an effective tool in writing because characters will often show their attitude to the world through both these interpretations. Just as they might interpret the sound of an object as disapproval they may in the same moment be interpreting the actions of the character with them as disapproval, or the two interpretations might be contradictory depending up the character’s feelings for the object and the character with them. If they prefer their car to the person than they may personify the car with positive traits while interpreting the other character’s behaviour negatively.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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