In creative writing, there are no boundaries. You don’t have to write straightforward, fact-based descriptions—you can use figurative language to stretch the limits of reality and paint a more vivid picture in your readers’ minds. Personification is one of many literary devices that can brighten your writing and help you tell a story more effectively. Want to learn more about this type of language and see personification examples from well-known books and poems? Read our guide below.
What Is Personification?
Let’s start with a basic personification definition: It’s a form of figurative language that attributes human traits to an inhuman object. The object could have human feelings or emotions, or it could display human behavior.
Everyday Personification Examples
You probably use personification in your everyday life. For example, you might use the phrase “my phone died” when your phone runs out of battery. Of course, a phone can’t actually die—rather, you’re attributing a human behavior to it.
Other everyday examples of personification include:
- The sun kissed my cheeks.
- My plants are begging for water.
- The bed groaned when I got in.
- The trees danced in the wind.
- The smell of freshly baked cookies pulled me into the bakery.
- News travels quickly.
Personification Purpose: What Does Personification Do?
The purpose of personification is to enable writers to give life to inanimate objects or animals—which can be an effective way to make a point or communicate a concept. This tool can help define a non-human’s role in the story, encourage the reader to empathize with that character, or simply paint a clearer picture in the reader’s mind.
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Examples of Personification In Poetry
1. I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
In the poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” William Wordsworth describes the flowers as fluttering and dancing in the breeze. While we understand that flowers don’t actually dance, this poetic personification paints a picture of the daffodils’ movement.
2. Whatif by Shel Silverstein
Last night, while I lay thinking here,
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there’s poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
In the poem “Whatif,” Shel Silverstein personifies intrusive thoughts (“whatifs”). He describes them crawling, prancing, and partying—conveying that those thoughts do what they want, when they want.
3. Blackberrying by Sylvia Plath
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.
Of course, blackberries can’t actually be dumb or feel emotions like love. However, in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Blackberrying,” she uses poetic personification to communicate her deep bond with the berries.
Examples of Personification In Literature
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“[The eyes of T.J. Eckleberg] look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground….”
In this passage, author F. Scott Fitzgerald describes eyes painted on a billboard. He says that the eyes brood, although they aren’t human—and aren’t actually capable of conveying emotion. This literary personification allows him to capture the dark, dreary mood of the billboard and the valley it surveys.
2. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
“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.”
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses literary personification to describe the concept of death. She characterizes death as a person, giving him physical characteristics (square toes) and possessions (a house and sword), conveying that death is powerful and inevitable.
Personification vs Anthropomorphism
What’s the difference between personification and anthropomorphism? On its face, the two creative writing tools seem interchangeable, as the latter is defined as the attribution of human characteristics to a god, animal, or object. However, when comparing the two concepts, it’s helpful to think about anthropomorphism as literal—it describes an animal or object acting as a human, like Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh. Personification, on the other hand, is figurative. The purpose of personification is to more effectively describe a non-human object by attributing a human characteristic to it.
How to Write Personification
Want to learn how to use personification effectively? Use these tips:
- Pay attention to personification when you read. As you consume books and poems, make a point to identify instances of personification so you can begin to see the different ways you can incorporate it into your own writing.
- Think about the mood or emotion you want to convey. That will influence the type of characteristics or behavior that you attribute to your object. To describe ominous weather, for example, you might write, “The angry clouds marched across the sky.” For a lighter, less threatening description, however, you could write, “The clouds leisurely wandered across the sky.” Think first about what you want to convey, and then create descriptions that match that mood.
- Use it thoughtfully. As with any type of figurative language, personification can lose its effectiveness if you use it too often.
Enhance Your Writer’s Toolkit
By learning how to use personification, you can add a powerful tool to your writer’s toolkit. Attributing human emotions to objects and non-human characters can help you more effectively convey mood and context, tell a more vivid story, and, overall, become a more well-rounded writer.
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