Writing Tip — How to Use Personification

boardw-2084766_1280Last Tuesday, I compared adverbs to paroled felons because of the ban most writers have placed on them. Writing about the pitiful adverb as a hated outcast of society was a lot of fun. Personification is one my favorite kinds of figurative language. It offers writers such a range of possibilities for comparisons. The suggestions below are only two possibilities.


Some of the funniest pieces of writing I’ve come across use personification. My two favorite humor writers, Patrick F. McManus and P.G. Wodehouse, used the technique many times.

From “Controlling My Life” in the book Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink! by Patrick F. McManus: “I just read a book on how to get control of my time and therefore of my life. My time has always had a tendency to slip away from me and do as it pleases. My life follows it, like a puppy after an untrained bird dog. Come night, my life shows up, usually covered with mud and full of stickers, exhausted by grinning happily. My time never returns.”

In numerous short stories, Mr. McManus describes his dog from his childhood, Strange, as if he is a disreputable human relative.

From “Strange Meets Matilda Jean” in Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink!, he writes that when he would throw a stick and tell his dog to fetch, Strange “… would give me this insolent stare, which said, ‘Fetch it yourself, dumbo. You threw it.’ Then he would flip a cigarette butt at me, blow out a stream of smoke, and slouch back into his doghouse.”

Mr. Wodehouse often wrote about dogs in his stories and used personification to describe them, among other objects.

From “The Go-Getter” in Blandings Castletwo dogs battle it out in the drawing room of a country house during a party. Mr. Wodehouse describes the thought processes of a mutt named Bottles. “And, feeling that all these delightful people were relying on him to look after their interests and keep alien and subversive influences at a distance, he advanced with a bright willingness to the task of ejecting this intruder.”

From Over Seventy, Mr. Wodehouse writes about three hurricanes that hit his area of Long Island in one season. “Our hurricanes were Carol and Edna. Dolly, their sister, a nice girl, went out to sea, but Carol gave us all she had got, and so eleven days later did Edna.

Using humorous personification doesn’t have to be confined to humorous stories. Rex Stout uses it in his murder mysteries because his main character, private detective Archie Goodwin, has a considerable sense of humor.

In And Be a VillainArchie is on a stakeout and has skipped breakfast. “My stomach had decided that since it wasn’t going to be needed any more it might as well try shriveling into a ball and see how I liked that.  I tried to kid it along by swallowing, but because I hadn’t brushed my teeth it didn’t taste like me at all, so I tried spitting instead, but that only made my stomach shrivel faster.”  Later when Archie finally  gets something to eat, he writes, “My stomach and I made up, and we agreed to forget it ever happened.”


There’s something inherently creepy about things acting like humans. Perhaps it’s simply because such behavior goes against accepted norms. When a writer uses human qualities to describe inanimate objects, the reader senses something is wrong.

The mysteries featuring the detective Uncle Abner are set in West Virginia before the Civil War. In “Th Wrong Hand” from Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries, Abner and his tweenage nephew Martin go the house of a man, whom Abner suspects of murdering his brother. Martin is afraid of the man because his back is hunched. They enter the house on the stormy, winter’s night. Martin’s descriptions underline his uneasiness. “The wind whooped and spat in the chimney” and “A gust of wind caught the loose sash in the casement behind us and shook it as one, barred out and angry, shakes a door.”

I have worked on and off on a murder mystery set in October with the climax coming on Halloween night. The main character and his friends are venturing to an abandoned house where he thinks proof to a seventy-year-old murder is buried. “The wind blowing through the deserted streets was like sighs of relief. Trick-or-treating and all that kids’s stuff was over. Now the night could get down to the grown-up job of being the most wicked holiday of the year.”

What kind of figurative language do you use in your writing?

Writing Tip — Favorite Story: “Over Seventy” by P.G. Wodehouse

over 70The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Even in this digital age, when writers can access the world from their couch, we still experience a lot of the problems and pleasures that writers did in the past . Whenever I get down about the pursuit of publishing, I turn to P.G. Wodehouse’s semi-autobiographical book, Over Seventy. It’s semi-autobiographical because Mr, Wodehouse was a humor writer and wasn’t about to let the truth interfere with a good story. From what I’ve learned about him, the basic facts in this book are true — where he went to school, how he got his first job writing, and so on. But the details may be highly fictionalized, such as the reason he was fired from a job in a bank.

Mr. Wodehouse was born in 1882, and his only ambition was to be a writer. So when he began to make a living as a writer in 1900, he did what writers do now. He tried to establish a platform. It wasn’t called that back then, but that’s what his efforts amounted to. He got a job writing articles in a newspaper while trying to sell short stories to pulp magazines. He added to this by writing occasionally for a humor column at the newspaper. Then he was selling humorous stories to well-known magazines. After he moved to New York City around 1909, he became a dramatic critic for Vanity Fair and wrote plays and lyrics for songs in musical comedies.

After all these years of work, he finally sold his first novel, in serialized form, to Saturday Evening Post. The Post was a huge step up because it was a “slick” magazine as opposed to a pulp one. I assume the word means it had shiny pages. Slick magazines were also more prestigious and paid better. When he died in 1975, he had published over ninety books and was working on a manuscript in his hospital bed.

Over Seventy has a lot of funny digressions, running from butlers to manners and the state of American TV in the 1950’s. But I especially like the chapter “My Methods, Such as They Are.” I am fascinated by an artistic person’s creative process, regardless of the art. Mr. Wodehouse wrote that the amount of work he got done in a day hung on “whether or not I put my feet up on” his desk. If he did, then he drifted off into the past. If he didn’t, he settled down to work.

Mr. Wodehouse was definitely a plotter. He always worked from a detailed scenario. This makes sense because his madcap plots were so complicated that I can see how he would have to work it all out before he started on the first draft. I love his quote about characters.

“Some writers will tell you that they just sit down and take pen in hand and let their characters carry on as they see fit. Not for me any procedure like that. I wouldn’t trust my characters an inch. If I sat back and let them take charge, heaven knows what the result would be.”

What stories have you read about writers or any artist and his or her creative process?


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