Personification may sound like something left behind from the Romantic era of poetry or the work of William Shakespeare, but it’s actually present in almost all contemporary literature, and even in our everyday speech. You’ve probably used personification in your own writing without realizing it. As a literary device, personification can be used to truly bring your story to life—and in subtler ways than you might think.
Let’s break things down with the personification definition and a few famous examples from beloved literary work. Before you know it, you’ll see all your favorite stories come to life in ways you’d never expect.
What is personification?
Personification is a literary device that assigns traditionally human attributes to nonhuman things, such as household objects or elements of the natural world. Rather than imbuing functional human agency into these things, personification uses figurative language to illustrate a certain moment in a fresh and unexpected way.
When we personify an inanimate object or an abstract concept, that means that we’re writing description about the the object using the same terms that we might use to describe a human. In other words, we’ve “made it a person.”
For example, you might say that the electricity bill “glared at her accusingly,” or the wind “gnashed its teeth against the window.” We’re not expected to take these images literally—they won’t think that the electricity bill has suddenly grown eyes á la that creepy book in Hocus Pocus, or that the wind is actually a vengeful spirit with disconcertingly sharp fangs. They understand that these are vibrant, colorful ways to portray a deceptively simple idea.
Abstract concepts like nations or emotions can also be given human qualities to personify them. The Status of Liberty is often considered a personification of the United States, while we might say that the emotion of sadness is like a lonely man hunched in a dark corner.
Literature is full of personification. We’ll look at a few more personification examples down below.
Why use personification in a story?
As a literary device used by writers, personification adds layers of meaning to a story. Let’s look at why writers use personification in their writing.
1. Illustrate setting
Personification is an excellent writing tool for establishing the setting of a story. If your character is starting a new school, for instance, some examples of personification might be “the walls leered down at them,” or “the iron gates loomed menacingly” at the entrance.
These personified images communicate something new and more complex than simply describing the grey doors and empty walls of a nondescript building.
Using personification gives the reader a broader view of where the story takes place. Notice how the personification examples above didn’t actually communicate any hard details about the setting—the rust on the hinges of the doors, the yellowing flyers stuck to the walls, etc. Instead, giving human characteristics to inanimate objects illustrates the relationship between the character and the setting, and showed the reader hints of where they can expect this relationship to go.
2. Enhance imagery
A writer’s word choice when writing personification can lend entirely different moods and tones to the imagery of a story. Careful use of imagery is an important aspect of creating a vivid image in the mind’s eye.
Some personification examples that create effective imagery might be a rainy scene being personified as raindrops “dancing pirouettes across the pavement,” “hurling themselves to the earth with reckless abandon,” “caressing the rooftops,” “falling as though clinging to the sky had become more trouble than it was worth,” and so on.
You can take something as simple as a rainy day or as unassuming as a household item and personify them to illustrate them in a hundred different ways. Each way will lend something new and poignant to your story.
Try using personification on different images in your scene and see which fits best with your story’s mood and theme.
3. Connect with readers
The thing about readers is that the vast majority of are… people. And this means that by assigning human attributes to inanimate objects, right away you’re creating a connection that your reader will be able to relate to. This gives them a vivid image and brings abstract ideas to life.
For example, if you said that “the branches quaked fearfully against the coming storm,” most readers can imagine what that looks like because they know what it is to “quake fearfully” against something that’s headed their way. That’s a great example of successful personification.
By personifying non-human things by giving them human characteristics, you create a visceral reaction by connecting with a primal emotion in a colorful, imaginative way.
What’s the difference between personification vs. anthropomorphism?
There are a couple terms which are quite similar to personification, and one of them is anthropomorphism. So what’s the difference?
Anthropomorphism is a cornerstone of popular culture and animated films. It’s a literary device that takes animals or objects and portrays them as if they were actually humans. These objects can be absolutely anything, from a rakish candelabra with a French accent, to an old shoe, to a copy machine—but when they’re anthropomorphized, they appear as people-like.
Anthropomorphism is personification at its most extreme incarnation. Rather than using moments of personified connection to add subtle highlights to a scene, anthropomorphism creates an entire person out of something unexpected.
For example, we anthropomorphized characters in many Disney movies, like the very late rabbit in Alice in Wonderland or Nemo in Finding Nemo, two animals with person-like features; or in Lumière the candelabra in Beauty and the Beast. Disney has built an entire empire off of anthropomorphism!
We see it in literature too, in examples like Juneau Black’s Shady Hollow series, which takes place in an animal community. Among its lovable cast of characters are a reporter who’s a fox and a policeman who’s a bear. Apart from the fur and claws, everything about these animals is very human; however, portraying them as animals gives another dimension to the mood and setting of the story.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is another famous example of animals given human agency through anthropomorphism.
What’s the difference between personification vs. chremamorphism?
Another, lesser known literary device that’s related to personification is chremamorphism. Chremamorphism is the inverse of personification: it ascribes non-human characteristics to a human (or humanoid) entity.
For example, calling a woman a “wallflower” or an “English rose” is an example of chremamorphism, because you’re using the imagery of an inanimate object to communicate something about a person.
Another example might to say that a man “moved at a glacial pace,” or that he “erupted in anger.” These take images from the natural world to give a new dimension to a human being.
Both personification and chremamorphism illustrate an abstract idea with relatable human qualities, adding more dimension to the story.
Examples of personification in everyday speech
We may think of personification purely as a literary device, but we use it without thinking in our everyday lives, too. Here are a few common examples of using human characteristics to describe nonhuman things.
“The sun glared down from the sky.” In this example, the speaker is personifying the sun to give a feeling of antagonism and discomfort on a hot summer’s day.
“The car complained as she started the rusty engine.” In this brief sentence, we can immediately imagine the sound of a tired car putting up a fight as it gets ready to work.
“The camera loves you.” This is a common phrase heard in film and modelling industries to describe someone as being photogenic. Personifying the camera makes it feel like what it’s looking at is being loved.
“The half-price sale sign called her name.” In real life, we love using personification to deflect responsibility for our choices. “It’s not my fault I went over my credit limit, those shoes were calling my name!”
“Comic books became constant companions throughout his childhood.” Personification can be a great way to convey a deep connection between a person and their most valuable possessions.
Examples of personification in literature
As you can see, personification is a great tool that writers can use to create rich description and meaning without resorting to wordy exposition. Let’s look at a few examples of writers who’ve put it into practice.
1. The Tiger in the Smoke, by Margery Allingham
The fog had crept into the taxi where it crouched panting in a traffic jam. It oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside.
In this 1950s crime novel, Margery Allingham uses personification to set the tone of the story effectively. Describing the fog as something sentient and malevolent, reaching out fingers covered in big-city smoke to intrude on the couple’s evening, uses rich language to paint a powerful image, and the juxtaposition between the “elegant young people” and the image of the fog works effectively to draw the reader deeper into the story.
2. “To Autumn,” by John Keats
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run
Personification is a beloved mainstay of poetry, and in this example Keats uses it to lend a human dimension to the natural world—in this case, the sun and the season of autumn are both shown as personified figures. Words like “conspiring” and “bosom-friend” impart a sense of their intimate relationship. Here we see how these forces might react to the turning of the seasons.
3. The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig
Old philosophy textbooks looked down at her, ghost furnishings from her university days, when life still had possibility.
In this example we see how the protagonist projects human characteristics onto her old textbooks, projecting some of her feelings onto them. We know, of course, that the textbooks aren’t actually looking down—it’s the character who’s looking up. But by using personification, we understand something more about the character and the unfulfilled guilt she feels about her past.
Personification makes your story come alive
Although personification is a mainstay of classic poetry, you can see how using human traits in a creative way gives depth, intensity, and life to even the simplest moments in your writing. It’s a powerful shortcut to writing description without the wordiness. A personified figure—that is, a non human concept given a human characteristic—can help your readers connect with your story, enhance the theme and tone of a scene, and elevate the pedestrian to the extraordinary.