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”
“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: