Personification: When Eyes Have Hands

This is how scary personification should be to you. Avoid it like the plague or Catbert the evil editor will smack you with sardines.

Chalk it up as reason 9A of why you shouldn’t read poorly written fiction, or maybe reason 5B of why you should, but I’ve somehow picked up an awful habit of giving inanimate objects the ability to act, feel, and otherwise pick up human characteristics. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m one of the lucky few blessed by Team PYP, Port Yonder Press’s mentorship program. A particular blessing I’ve received is the kind admonishment that personification is bad because it takes the reader out of the story with odd phrases that give life and action to that which has none.

Five months ago, I started the second round of my story with the line:

Mirian’s cinnamon fragrance stole the weight from Jaeju’s legs.

Since I submitted this to my katana-wielding mentor, C.L. Dyck, I was obviously impressed with myself for crafting such elegant prose. The picture that comes to mind is like me swimming up to a battleship and flicking a pebble. C.L. was kind in pointing me to the “Where the Map Ends” Fiction Writing Tip 63, a list of tips by Jeff Gerke, founder of Marcher Lord Press. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t immediately convinced that personification was that bad. I’d also guess that most writers don’t immediately agree with criticism. So, no surprise there.

The summary of why C.L. has a problem with personification is that the reader looks at my first sentence and thinks: The fragrance magically grew hands, went inside Jaeju’s legs and removed the pressure of gravity on his muscles? One counter argument, and one which I used, was that it was a figure of speech, not meant to be taken literally. Another argument is that in order to avoid personification, I feel I have to add words of explanation, feeling words or passive verbs. Despite those arguments, I think the rest of this post will make clear why personification is not an advisable tool for your writing arsenal.

In order to rewrite that first line without personification, I could say: “Mirian’s cinnamon fragrance evoked Jaeju’s crush like a euphoric elixir.” Okay, that’s not the best, but not personification because a smell can evoke something. Most often my first rewrite of a personification is adding “was” or a feeling word. The reason why it’s better to do this than use personification is because it is better to be passive or telling than to be illogical. Most of the lines that stay are rewrites or cuts that rework what I’m trying to say w/o personification, and I’ve yet to find a line that sounded better with personification.

I’m in the third quarter of my mentorship program, and my last submission snapped one of C.L.’s nerves. Oops! As an illustration of why personification is bad, both for you and me, and for some humorous entertainment, I’ll share some of my personifications and C.L.’s responses.

At least I made it to page 4 on this one. Then I wrote,

“then my boots landed like two spears planted in the dirt.”

C.L. responded: PERSONIFICATION. His boots did not do this. HE stopped moving. Tim, Tim, Tim. No, no, no. NO. For Q4, your job is to *scour* your submission for anything that is NOT a character and that is performing an action, delete those sentences and rewrite them before you send to me. They are ABSOLUTELY NOT PERMITTED to arrive at my desk anymore. (1) They are a major source of lack of clarity. (2) They are messing up your voice, and you are now voicing, and I will NOT tolerate anything that screws that up. There will be a Catbert Hissy Fit.

Let the hissy fit begin… notice how it gets worse 😉

“The shift of her pistol escaping its holster turned to a clicked hammer”

C.L.: Delete it. Rewrite it. “The shift” did not “turn into”.

“She held her free hand out at her poised-to-kill soldiers,”

C.L.: Yes! Not a personification! Very clear, very easy to visualize. (yeah, I got one right! :))

“she looked exactly how my dreams imagined she would”

C.L.: Delete. Rewrite. His dreams did not imagine. He did. (easy fix, “exactly how I imagined in my dreams”)

“A tear of joy loosed down my cheek”

C.L.: Inanimate object + verb = Catbert Hissy Fit. Delete. Rewrite. (uh-oh, here it comes)

“A spring of hope rose in my chest…My stomach clenched in anticipation”

C.L.: Hiss! Fit! Delete. Rewrite. Hiss! Fit! Delete. Rewrite.

“A quick giggle escaped… Leslie’s attention shot towards… Her eyes held”

C.L.: Hiss! Fit! Delete! Rewrite! Held what? With what little eyeball hands? Have we not talked about eyeball hands before? Have you not blogged my instructions to you about eyeball hands? NO EYEBALL HANDS ALLOWED.

“…our joined space sealed off”

C.L.: HISS! FIT! Delete! Rewrite! This story is not to come to my desk again till every single one of these is fixed. I love you too much to let you die like this! *shakes Tim to revive his grammar and slaps him several times with a sardine*

I am very thankful for a writing mentor that cares for me and isn’t afraid to bring out the sardine to show me my bad habits. Do you have any similar writing habits you’re trying to kick?

Cat wanted to share some of her favorite Catbert the Evil Editor videos for us:

About Timothy C. Ward

Timothy C. Ward is a Hugo nominated producer for Adventures in SciFi Publishing, who has been lost, broke and surfed with sharks on the other side of the world. He now dreams of greater adventures from his keyboard in Des Moines, Iowa. This summer he released two novels: his second Sand Divers book, Scavenger: A.I., where two parents use an ancient technology to fight a reproducing A.I. while trying to resurrect their deceased infant; and Godsknife: Revolt, an apocalyptic battle for godhood in the rift between Iowa and the Abyss.

8 comments on “Personification: When Eyes Have Hands

  1. –“This story is not to come to my desk again till every single one of these is fixed. I love you too much to let you die like this! *shakes Tim to revive his grammar and slaps him several times with a sardine*”

    Ha! I love Thinky-Doo-Catbert. She always makes me laugh. Hang in there, Tim. She will guide you to wonderful. That I am sure of. 😀

  2. Gee, I don’t even know if I’m making mistakes like that. Right now I’m busy trying to eliminate the word “that” and sentences beginning with “as” and verbs ending with “ing”. Because I tend to write every sentence that way. Someday I’ll get a mentor and they’ll really point out my howlers. 🙂

  3. This makes me laugh. Sorry you have such a hard time with this!! I enjoy those personification sentences, but can see her point.

  4. Oh goodness…I recently got a critted story back from a friend. Apparently I have this tendency to write “ing” verbs and it drives her into a hissy fit nearly as bad as CathiLyn’s. :S Now that I’ve read this I’m going to go through my ms and look for personification. When an editor talks that badly about it, it’s gotta go. 😉

  5. I’m pretty sure I’ve done the “held with his eyes” bit. You’re fortunate to have a great editor like CathiLyn as your mentor.

  6. […] like I was totally slacking off. Also, we learned just how rough those edits were in my last post, “Personification: When Eyes Have Hands.” In the last few months, I’ve worked hard at breaking down bad writing habits and building […]

  7. ROFL! I’m glad you found the humor in it, Tim. I am no longer all spikey-fuzzy and hissy, and it should be safe to send your next round when the time comes. 😀

  8. I’ve got a bigger problem in personification than I thought I did…

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