Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)
By definition, personification is the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something nonhuman. In literature, examples of personification number in the thousands, and each of us could present many of our own favorite examples of this device, (one of mine being Stephen King’s (not-so-sweet) ride, Christine).
Why personification works, as opposed to how to craft it, is the topic of this month’s article. When considered at base level, the idea that a place, object, or idea could be emboldened as a person seems not just absurd, but wholly unbelievable. Yet it works incredibly well in novels like Christine or movies like the soon-to-be released Collateral Beauty. Why?
Likely because we’ve all experienced it in real life. Therapists know this, it’s why they guide patients to visualize their ‘safe place’ when quelling anxiety. Children know it too—it’s why objects like stuffed toys or blankies take on such profound importance that they are worth a king’s ransom because they are ‘real’ to the child (*cough* Velveteen Rabbit *cough*)
Consider the last time you knew—without knowing how you knew—that a place or thing was just…right. Or wrong. Allow me to share my own story: I was on a years-ago road trip with my Mom across a prior-unseen expanse of southern Alberta prairie. Outside the town of Cardston squatted a massive—and inexplicably ominous—building. I recall staring at it and feeling my skin crawl. "What is that place?" I asked.
"St. Mary's," Mom replied, tight and clipped. "It was an old residential school."
Hearing that made my stomach blanch. Residential schools, for those unfamiliar, were places where Native children were sent without choice and against the wishes of their parents (in other words, government-sanctioned kidnapping). In these 'schools' children were misappropriated, abused, sometimes even tortured and killed. Face to face with St. Mary's (and what a revoltingly ironic name, incidentally: 'Mary'. 'Mother'. I think it's abundantly obvious that no Native child was ever 'mothered' there - unless it was in the most macabre way possible) my Mom said, "Isn't it an evil old dump?"
Hell, yes. And it amazed me, how my body knew it before my brain did. I was reacting to a place as though it was somehow a threatening person and this wasn’t a horror movie—it was real life. So I promptly did what any writer should always do: I bottled that feeling then described it in detail, hammered down every reaction that was occurring involuntarily and wrote them down so that one day, when I went to employ this device we call personification, I could authentically capture my character’s feeling, both internally and externally—and certainly viscerally. The following is what I came up with from my St. Mary’s experience:
- A need to recoil and/or look away
- Heart pounding
- Welling tears
- Overwhelming sadness Deep loneliness
It’s important too, I think, to note that these reactions were both unheralded and intuitive. They were neither summoned by reason nor did they obey it, and that did not even occur to me in the moment. Important. The facts—that this was an inanimate building that could not think, feel or move—did not even enter into my psyche. In the moment of my reaction, reality was suspended and visceral took over. The same will be true for any character who capably pulls us into buying the personification the author is trying to sell—because we can all identify with their brain/body reactions. We’ve each been in a situation where we simply feel what we feel and may not know why it is true only that it is true.
On the flipside, the object of personification needs to have a reason to have taken on a human quality (lest we all be living in some sort of Beauty & The Beast alternate universe, talking to candelabras and teapots). So consider the object’s inanimate qualities and why they might, for your character(s) cross the border into ‘real’; did the Velveteen Rabbit have a soft (therefore comforting) body? Yes. Eyes, a window of the soul, to look into? Another yes. Did Christine, the car, represent freedom, autonomy, and being 1950’s ‘greaser cool’? Yes, yes, and yes. As for my experience, St. Mary’s being an instantaneous villain was a little more inexplicable, and admittedly creepy, as I truly didn’t know the history of the place, learning it only through my reaction toward it. (But I wrote an article on how a place might become a psychopath and the link is here.)
Now you’re up—what are your thoughts on personification? Why do you think we’re drawn to dial into this device? What makes it work? What makes it fall flat? Let’s chat!
Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.
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About No Vacancy
When therapist Lucas Stephen’s sister returns from a legendary Los Angeles hotel, she’s a shell of the artist she once was. Nearly catatonic, deteriorating rapidly, Michelle alarms Lucas by painting the same old-style straight razor over and over.
Heartbroken and frightened, Lucas resolves to find out what happened to her. With his beautiful—and psychic—colleague Della, Lucas travels to L.A., booking a room in the hotel Michelle stayed at.
They barely cross the threshold when Della senses evil. She sees bodies falling out of the sky. Broken dreams. Imprisoned nightmares. She begs Lucas to leave, but the hotel makes both time and truth shift, and when Lucas looks into the mirror in his sister’s room, he sees the straight razor—and is drawn to the bright, scarlet stain of fresh blood…