41. Vivid Imagery Part 3: Morphing with Anthropomorphisms

Author: Nola Published: almost 2 years ago.
Tags: similes, metaphors, imagery, anthropomorphisms, personification Category: Writing tips

Now before you panic at that large ‘A’ word, let me assure you that it’s quite easy. In fact, many of you have probably dropped the odd one in your own poetry or prose. Anthropomorphism is the ‘attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena’ (The Free Dictionary). The term is sometimes used interchangeably with personification, though some commentators prefer to keep a distinction. If you’re interested in finding out more about that debate, you might like to look at posts by Lynley Stace and Maeve Maddox. For my purposes though, I’ll use the terms interchangeably.

Anthropomorphisms are frowned on in some types of writing, such as research reports. In my days as a university academic, I often had to correct students who wrote that ‘an experiment found something’. It may sound pedantic, but it’s the researcher who finds something as a result of the experiment.

In more creative domains such as fiction and poetry, anthropomorphisms can be used to great effect. It's quite common for animals or inanimate objects to speak and act like humans in children's stories and fantasy literature (e.g. Aslan the lion in the Narnia series or the furnishings in the film Beauty and the Beast). Personification can also be used to spice up your writing in much the same way as metaphors and similes can. Consider the following:


‘The Addicotts lived in a house which, but for a few yards of sea grass, would have been paddling its toes in the ocean.’ (From The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Steadman).

‘…envelopes embroidered by the teeth of mice.’ (From The Hatbox Letters by Beth Powning)

‘… lamplight scribbling a shaky message on the ground before her’. (A description of someone riding off on a bicycle in The Distant Hours by Kate Morton).

‘By the looks of most of them that was probably the closest they’d get to real sin, bidding for its hand-me-downs.’ (A description of women admiring expensive clothing in Angel Face, a short story by Cornell Woolrich)


Do you see how those examples breathe life into the settings and circumstances? We can picture how close the house is to the ocean. We can see the mice munching on the envelopes.

Many of the tips I gave in my earlier posts on metaphors and similes are also relevant here (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series). For example, avoid clichés and anachronisms, consider different perspectives and match the mood of the piece. It’s also important not to overuse personification, unless that’s a key feature of the material you’re writing (e.g. a children’s book told through the eyes of a runaway lobster). When used appropriately, however, a well-placed anthropomorphism can help your readers to experience a scene more vividly.

Do you have any favourite books or movies that have used anthropomorphisms? I’d love to hear your examples.

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