Breathe life into literally anything
Published: September 2, 2005
|The other evening, I lifted a bedsheet and found this very paragraph underneath, quivering in a fetal position. It told me it was terrified at the thought of appearing in The Writer before thousands of savvy readers. All night I had to reassure the teary bundle that it would be loved, or at least respected, because it was going to be personified.|
And I was right, wasn't I? Humankind has always had a soft spot for nonhuman phenomena given human traits. We call such attribution personification (also anthropomorphization)—and in stories and art over the millennia, we've been engaged by every kind of personified thing, from talking serpents to a sponge that wears pants.
Personification charms us because the animation is magical and, in the best cases, novel and unexpected. Who thought of wine as a person before James Thurber gave it life in the celebrated cartoon caption, "It's a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused at its presumption"?
In fiction, personification yields effects ranging from comic to creepy to edgy. It can be applied on a macro scale, as with the villainous Plymouth Fury in Stephen King's Christine; or it can be incidental, the sudden animation of unlikely things—like the toenails in Martin Amis' Yellow Dog that gave "a defiant click" or "came quietly" when clipped.
Incidental uses include simple tricks of language: Nonhuman things are animated by words associated with humans: shoes that aspire to greatness; a furious red. Craftily applied, such verbs and modifiers can lift any passage; poorly cast, they languish by the fainting couch. For example, the trait of happiness is ignorable in a personification like "the birds sang happily"; but give that emotion to something less expected, like a piece of furniture injuring an elderly man, and it gets attention: "[T]he formica table ... splintered loudly, almost happily, and then detached itself from the wall" (Rupert Thompson, Soft).
Carrying forth the heritage
The Greek rhetoricians called personification prosopopoeia, and so what if only a Greek can pronounce it? The device has enlivened more writing than an ocean of espressos. Poets have naturally seized on personification as a type of metaphor, likening nature, abstract concepts and inanimate things to humans. The Neoclassical and Romantic poets alone gave every conceivable abstraction its minute of glory, whether it was Thomas Gray's Fair Science frowning away or John Keats' veiled Melancholy hanging trophies in her solemn shrine.
Later poets bestowed personality on anything in sight, natural or manufactured. From Emily Dickinson came a train that fed itself and peered superciliously at shanties ("The Railway Train"); recent U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins took it a step further in "Albany," where the very landscape elements seen from a train ran the opposite way on invisible legs, forsaking their viewer with wondrous uniformity of purpose.
Abstractions are personified in prose, too, perhaps never more than in The Pilgrim's Progress (John Bunyan, 1678), where Death, Knowledge, Piety and Despair were among the figures chatting it up. And just as people have always intuited that nature has human feelings-a belief dubbed the "pathetic fallacy" by author John Ruskin—writers have imbued every bug, flower and dawn with human qualities.
In fiction, with its sustained narrative and full characterizations, personification can be more convincing than in poetry. Readers suspend their disbelief not only when church mice, rabbits and pigs act like articulate adult humans, but when beds, walls, even body parts tell their stories. How about that schnozzola in Nikolai Gogol's classic short story "The Nose"?
Sure enough, the Nose did return, two minutes later. It was clad in a gold-braided, high-collared uniform, buckskin breeches, and cockaded hat. And [from] ... the hat it could be inferred that the Nose was purporting to pass for a State Councilor.
Heir to Gogol's tale is Philip Roth's novelette The Breast, in which Professor David Kepesh laments his transmogrification into a 6-foot mammary gland.
Such ambitious personifications, so engaging when well done, fall prey to tedium and excessiveness in lesser hands. Developing writers might first want to experiment with the incidental touches that quickly elevate an idea to an animated image. Here, for example, is how the narrator of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius portrays his mother's cancer, shielding himself from its literal horrors:
We are waiting for everything to finally stop working-the organs and systems, one by one, throwing up their hands—The jig is up, says the endocrine; I did what I could, says the stomach, or what's left of it. We'll get em next time, adds the heart, with a friendly punch to the shoulder.
Notice that the objects are given the power of speech, one common means of personification. A related technique, called apostrophe, is for someone to speak to a mute object as if it were human. In Walker Percy's classic novel The Moviegoer, the narrator expresses his longing for a secretary by addressing her chair:
[H]ow I envy thee, little kidney-shaped cushion! Oh, to take thy place and press in thy stead against the sweet hollow of her back ...
Compulsive apostrophe-talking to every little thing-makes for a distinctive character trait. And what happens when things talk back? The effect can be charming, miraculous or symptomatic of someone's psychosis, depending on the author's point of view.
Now, of course, we authors have been known to talk to laptops, pencils and even jittery paragraphs; but until these artifacts start dancing and yapping back at us like Pixar animations, we have nothing to fear from personification-and much to gain.
--Posted Sept. 2, 2005
Contributing editor Arthur Plotnik of Chicago has published six books, including The Elements of Editing and The Elements of Expression. His latest book, Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style, will be released in November.