An Author’s Guide To: Personification & Pathetic Fallacy
Good readers make good writers. Why? Because when we read, we absorb the style and techniques of others, and we can, in turn, use those techniques within our own writing.
In this #writerssupportingwriters blog, I explore two literary devices used by authors: personification and pathetic fallacy. These two devices are closely related, so I’ve endeavoured to break them down for you below with examples.
Personification is the process of attributing ANY human process to a non-human object. These human attributes could be FEELINGS or ACTIONS. In essence, an author describes objects, plants or animals as people.
One of my favourite examples of personification is from a Ted Hughes poem called Wind: “The stones cry out under the horizons.” Stones are inanimate objects, yet Hughes describes them as human – they cry out. Likewise, Hughes includes “woods crashing though darkness” and “fields quivering.” All lovely clear examples of personification at work – human movement and action described with a non-human object.
Wind is a treasure trove of personification, pathetic fallacy, similes and metaphors, all employed to explore the effect of a storm on the environment and the people who live there. (If you’d like to read this poem in full you can find it at the bottom of this blog or you can find it here.)
Shakespeare uses personification to describe Juliet’s beauty:
'But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief, That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.'
If Juliet is described as the sun, then the moon is ‘envious’, jealous, of her beauty. The moon is also ‘sick and pale with grief’. These are human characteristics and Shakespeare uses this technique to create contrast.
Pathetic fallacy is a form of personification. It is a literary device that attributes human qualities and emotions to inanimate objects of nature. The key word here is EMOTIONS (other human qualities such as action/movement would lend itself to personification). Pathetic fallacy is ALWAYS about EMOTIONS being attributed to non-human objects.
Pathetic fallacy is usually used to describe the seasons and the weather and describing the weather with human feelings is a way of reflecting the feelings of the characters, or the tone of a scene within a story.
If the sun shone happily a human emotion has been attributed to the weather, and such a description would likely be used if characters were experiencing positive emotions. If the weather is described as miserable or angry, this is likely done to reflect the tempestuous emotions of characters within a story.
Authors of both poetry and prose use pathetic fallacy within their writing.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Shelly uses pathetic fallacy in the scene where Dr. Frankenstein animates his monster for the first time. The narrator describes how it was “a dreary night in November” when Frankenstein readies his “instruments of life.” He is described as experiencing an “anxiety that almost amounted to agony,” and in the same paragraph the “rain pattered dismally against the window panes.”
As readers, we can see the links between the “dreary,” “dismal” weather and the feelings of the scientist who is about to do something truly terrible – bring his creation to life and then abandon it when he realizes the implication of what he has achieved. It is Frankenstein, after all, that is the monster of the story, not the creature he creates.
Emily Bronte uses a similar storm in Wuthering Heights. The heroine, Cathy, describes a violent thunderstorm when she is torn by the decision she must make between Heathcliff and Edgar. Overhearing her negative comments about him, Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights and disappears into that storm. The violent anger of the storm reflects the inner turmoil of Cathy.
In fact, Emily Bronte uses pathetic fallacy so well, many critics regard the setting of the moors, even the buildings upon them, as virtually characters in their own right.
Both personification and pathetic fallacy add a depth of detail within description of setting that goes beyond the literal and the effect of this is that it can evoke an emotional response, in the reader. By including this kind of description, a reader is helped to feel empathy and imagine a setting in a more vivid way.
If you think about it, the way humans speak is very pictorial. We use similes and metaphors frequently (which are cousins to personification and pathetic fallacy) as a way of conveying meaning far more quickly and easily through shared reference and experience. The devices of personification and pathetic fallacy are used by authors to tap into the pre-existing knowledge of the reader in the same way, nudging the reader’s imagination into action.
I wish the #writingcommunity all the best and would love to hear from you are embarking on writing your first romance book. You can contact me via the contact form on this website or via the social media links below.
Happy writing! (Ted Hughes Poem at the bottom as promised.)
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To find out about my novels click here and visit my books page where you can find the blurb for the first five books in the romance series.
Wind by Ted Hughes
This house has been far out at sea all night, The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills, Winds stampeding the fields under the window Floundering black astride and blinding wet Till day rose; then under an orange sky The hills had new places, and wind wielded Blade-light, luminous black and emerald, Flexing like the lens of a mad eye. At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as The coal-house door. Once I looked up - Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope, The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace, At any second to bang and vanish with a flap; The wind flung a magpie away and a black- Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house Rang like some fine green goblet in the note That any second would shatter it. Now deep In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought, Or each other. We watch the fire blazing, And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on, Seeing the window tremble to come in, Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.