Friday, July 21, 2017

The Power of Personification by Shutta Crum

Sometimes the secret to good writing is simply a matter of remembering what you learned in 3rd or 4th grade—those basic literary techniques. And one of them, personification, is a power-wielding giant. It’s an imposing, and oft-times elegant, figure of speech to be admired. That’s because it can carry a great deal of weight and perform several functions. (Did you catch that? I personified the term personification.) Personification punches up all kinds of writing—especially novels. (Though some poo-poo it as simply a technique for younger readers.) Not so!

Personification is the giving of personal or human qualities/traits/thoughts and feelings to non-human entities/objects/abstractions/gods/forces of nature. In some dictionaries anthropomorphism is similarly defined, though as children’s book writers we tend to think of anthropomorphism as giving human qualities/traits/thoughts and feelings to animals.

So what can this behemoth of a technique do?

It can make the setting come alive by:

  • helping the reader identify with the story’s world. A kind of, “Oh yeah, this feels familiar” feeling.
  • speeding up slow-moving sections, or slowing the reader down to ponder a while.

It can foreshadow by:

  • creating mood. (anxiety, fear, hopelessness, joy, etc.) This is especially important to emotionally heavy writing like horror, romance, etc.
  • creating humor, as well as tragedy. Letting the reader get an inkling of what’s to come and what kind of book it is that s/he is reading.

And most powerfully, by choosing what is personified and how often it is woven through a narrative the writer can create a recurring symbol for the most important ideas of a work. Especially in novels. And if you assign a gender to that symbol, there can be more depth to the personification. Why is Ice always a queen? Or why are the messengers of the apocalypse always horsemen?

Some examples:

In A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness, anger literally comes to life, becoming a monster and taking on human qualities. I love the first two sentences—so much told in just a few words: “The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.” We know, right away, this will be one of the main characters. And it is punctual, maybe even concerned that it shouldn’t be late. And the setting is personified. In the first pages of the novel, curtains shush each other. And we hear wood groaning, “. . . like the hungry stomach of the world, growling for a meal.” What foreshadowing! What mood setting! For many reasons, this book is one of my favorites. In addition, the monster is a symbol—a symbol of Connor’s anger at his mother’s cancer. Personification at its most powerful.

Take a look at Marcus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF. Like anger in the Patrick Ness book, death has become a character, the narrator. This is from Death’s diary: “It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, Goddamn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a vacation.” Also, there are wonderful bits of personification sprinkled throughout. “The visions began to pour and fall and occasionally limp from out of his hands.” and “The bomb took a bite out of the street.” Great writing!

You can find many more examples. “Is love a tender thing? It is too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.” William Shakespeare, ROMEO AND JULIET. Uh-oh, love is not going to go smoothly here. “Pink is what red looks like when it kicks off its shoes and lets its hair down.” Tom Robbins in WILD DUCKS FLYING BACKWARD. Uh-oh, you’re in for a wild ride!

And just because personification invades our everyday life so much, (See. Did it again.) in terms of common usages such as duty calls, the budget demands, the nation is on alert, and on and on, doesn’t mean that you should belittle this figure of speech. More than anything, the very commonness of it is an indication of how it resonates with us. Just think of the popularity of CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin. Those zany letters are the epitome of all little kids—of us.

If used wisely, placed early to foreshadow, and thoughtfully deepened into symbols personification is one of the hardest-hitting tools you’ve got in your writer’s toolbox. Just for fun, try this little exercise:

Writing starter: Take something inanimate and give it a human background. List what kinds of friends it might have, phrases it might say, attitude toward its job/function, and memories or desires it might have. Once you have several lists, play with the ideas to make a poem.

Now, I’ve gotta skedaddle! The day is languorous and lazily beckoning me outside...

Shutta Crum is the author of twelve picture books, three novels, and numerous poems and articles. Her book, THUNDER-BOMER! was an American Library Association and a Smithsonian Magazine “Notable Book” of the year. MINE! was listed by New York Times as one of the best board books of the year. She has a new picture book, MOUSELING’S WORDS (Clarion) slated to be published December, 2017.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: our Grammar Guru tackles common mistakes and our newest blog team member Charlie Barshaw takes over the quarterly Writer Spotlight feature. Charlie will be reaching out to interview SCBWI-MI members from all over the state - it could be you!

Save the dates:

  • Registration for the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference opens tomorrow, Saturday, July 22nd. Go here to learn more and access the registration link.

  • Our new PAL Coordinator, Jodi McKay, has been busy planning events for the PAL published authors in our Michigan chapter. The first one is coming up on August 5th. Please stop by to show your support!


  1. Thank you, Shutta, for a powerful yet gentle reminder.

  2. Great, thought-provoking post, Shutta!

  3. Ohhhhh! I've never tried this! Thanks so much Shutta!

  4. Thanks for the tips, Shutta. I hadn't thought of this before either.

  5. Your words have such power, Shutta! ;) Seriously, you've helped me rethink a stuck manuscript. Thanks for this great post.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing, Shutta!

  7. Great ideas, Shutta. Thank you!