What is Personification and How to Write One?

Besides explaining personification in detail, this post covers how personification can make your writing livelier and concrete, common pitfalls to avoid while writing them, and how to write them in a step-by-step way. And all of this through several examples.

What is personification?

Personification is a figure of speech that gives human characteristics to non-humans (plants, animals, and inanimate objects) and abstractions (sadness, anger, etc.) to create striking visual images for the readers. It makes your writing livelier and concrete.

Personification is quite common in children’s books. Flip the pages of children’s books such as The Jungle Book, Charlotte’s Web, Allice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Winnie the Pooh, and you’ll come across animals, plants, or inanimate objects speaking and showing other human characteristics.

Few examples of personification:

Even though I shook the pen vigorously, it refused to write.

The house cried for upkeep as it was last painted seven years ago.

The palm trees bowed as the wind picked up speed.

The dog begged his owner for a stroll outside.

The office environment wasn’t very welcoming.

(Personifications have been underlined in all the examples for ease of following.)

In the first two examples, an inanimate object (pen and house) displays a human characteristic: pens can’t refuse, humans can; houses can’t cry, humans can.

In the next three examples, a tree (palm tree), an animal (dog), and an abstraction (office environment), respectively, display a human characteristic: trees can’t bow, humans can; dogs can’t beg, humans can; office environment can’t welcome, humans can.

More resources on personification:

Note that personification is a figure of speech and shouldn’t be taken literally. So, the pen actually didn’t refuse to write and the house didn’t cry for upkeep. The pen and the house, in the given context, can be given these human characteristics to make our writing livelier and concrete.

If you noticed, all five human characteristics are in verb form, the most common way to personify non-humans. Other parts of speech though can also depict personification. Examples:

The bees had fun and frolic while jaunting around from flower to flower. [Noun and verb]

I can’t open the door because its hinges are uncooperative. [Adjective]

The revenue growth has now stubbornly remained below 10% for the last six quarters. [Adverb]

We use personification in day-to-day conversation and writing without even realizing. The fourth (dog begging) and fifth (office environment not very welcoming) examples are cases in point. Opportunity knocks, furious storm, animals dancing in the rain, and unforgiving world are few more examples of many instances of everyday use of personification.

Why use personification? [3 reasons]

We use personification for following reasons:

1. Understanding abstract concepts

Personification helps readers understand abstract concepts better by infusing human characteristics, which are more relatable to us, in them. Let’s take the example we covered earlier.

The office environment wasn’t very welcoming.

We’re better at visualizing concrete things and not abstract things like office environment. By giving a human characteristic of welcoming though, we can visualize the office environment as a person who is indifferent or even hostile (note that the office environment was not welcoming). This works well because we’re familiar with everyday human characteristics.

2. Developing empathy for plants and animals

When we attach human characteristics to plants and animals, we become more empathetic towards them. In the following sentence, for example, beg creates the picture of a human being desperately wanting to go out for a stroll.

The dog begged his owner for a stroll outside.

3. Creating vivid images of non-humans, and even the scenes they’re in

Personification is a handy tool in the hands of writers and poets to ‘show, and not tell’. Examples:

The Australian wildfire devoured thousands of hectares of towns, forests, fields, and anything else that came its way.

After a long winter, the plants embraced the spring.

The first personification portrays ferocity of the wildfire. It helps us picture that the wildfire behaved like a hungry man eagerly polishing off everything on the plate, an image very different from the one portrayed by a non-personification word such as destroyed.

The second personification conveys the image of warmth, growth, and hustle & bustle, an entire scene, without using a specific word.

How to write personifications?

Step 1: Think of an animal or an inanimate object

Example: Laptop, dog, skateboard, shoes, and ant

Step 2: Think of an action (verb) that only humans can do and that also goes with the message you want to convey about the thing you’ve identified in the first step

Example: Warn, request, rejoice, squirm, and sneak, respectively

Note that personifications are conveyed mostly through verbs, but other parts of speech too can play this role. For sake of simplicity, we’ve picked only verbs.

Step 3: Combine the above two along with any objects or complements to complete the message

The laptop warned me that the battery was charged to only 5 percent of its capacity.

The dog requested me to play fetch.

The skateboard rejoiced when I was airborne.

My shoes squirmed in pain when I tied the laces too tightly.

The ant sneaked past all defences of the bottle to taste the syrup.

Common mistake in personifications

The most common error I’ve seen people make in writing personifications is using a characteristic that is common to humans as well as the non-human. Let’s take an obvious error to understand this.

The dog ate everything in the bowl.

The cat slept like a log.

Do only humans eat and sleep? No. All animals eat and sleep. So, when we say animals eat and sleep, we’re not giving them human characteristics. These characteristics belong to them as well. That’s why the above two aren’t examples of personification.

The above two examples were quite straightforward and easy to figure out. But some personifications may not be. Consider these:

The dog shrieked in agony when someone stepped on its tail.

The tree shrieked in agony when someone cut its branch.

The hungry chicks greeted parents in anticipation of food.

The house greeted me with delight on my return from vacation.

Are the first and third sentences an example of personification?

Do only humans shriek in pain? Do only humans greet?

Unless shriek is a kind of cry that is associated only with humans, I would not consider the first sentence to be an example of personification. Same goes with the third sentence. If I look for greet in Merriam-Webster, one of the definitions say ‘to meet or react to in a specified manner’. Does this definition not apply to animals?

Now, look at the second and fourth examples. I’ve changed animals and birds to inanimate objects (tree and house). Do you think these two are examples of personification? Yes. That’s because shrieking and greeting aren’t natural characteristics of inanimate objects.

What I’ve argued here isn’t cast in stone. We can debate if dogs can shriek and chicks can greet. But the bottom-line is that such personifications fall in grey area, and you can avoid ambiguity by making sure that human characteristic you’re trying to associate with a non-human isn’t already natural to it.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can personification be a metaphor?

Personification is actually an implied metaphor that says that a non-human or abstraction is a person doing something. Let’s understand this through few personification examples we covered earlier. Each of the example is followed by its implied version, which is nothing but a metaphor (notice the be verb):

The house cried for upkeep as it was last painted seven years ago.

The house [is a person who] cried for upkeep as it was last painted seven years ago.

The dog begged his owner for a stroll outside.

The dog [is a person who] begged his owner for a stroll outside.

The office environment wasn’t very welcoming.

The office environment [is a person who] wasn’t very welcoming.

So, personification is a metaphor, with a non-human or an abstraction as the tenor and a human as the vehicle. Since the relationship between tenor and vehicle is direct (be verb), personification is not a simile. It can however be converted to a simile like any metaphor.

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Anil Yadav

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