Last 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 Castle, two 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 Villain, Archie 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?