Episode 190: Dogs at a Poker Table

On July 2, 2022, Kasie and Rex took on those furries that think they’re human. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Personification vs. Anthropomorphism


  • SCWA’s Annual Conference is open for registration
  • What are personification and anthropomorphism and why do people use them?
  • Examples of each
  • How to use anthropomorphism
Photo by Sam Lion on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

You missed it! The Early Bird deadline has passed for SCWA’s Annual Conference. It’s still just as valuable, though. What do you get at the Fall Conference? Not one, but TWO literary agents will give keynotes as well so all those “How do I get an agent?” questions will be answered. Keynote and workshop from author, cultural critic, and book editor Leigh Stein whose Twitter account is on fire as she examines exactly what social media is doing to us as individuals and collectively.

And the youngest and first black female poet laureate in Alabama history, Ashley M. Jones keynotes and teaches a workshop. The conference is at Pawley’s Island at the beach so that might be reason enough. It’s October 21-23 and more faculty and details can be found here.

For those of you who are travel shy or just prefer to learn from the comfort of your own home, SCWA is offering a virtual option as well. It’s not the same conference, but it does feature some of our faculty from the IRL version. Check out the virtual conference – it’s a cheaper option. October 7-9 featuring Hub City’s Meg Reid, agent Michaela Whatnall, editor Katoya Ellis Fleming, and many more.

So we’ve done some cool literary devices in the past but we’ve never done personification. It came up in my house this week because my mom’s dog, Clemson, has been staying with us and we’ve been speaking for her all week: “But, Kasie, I love walking in the neighborhood and sniffing everything and never peeing. Let’s do it again.”

All the sarcasm, silliness, and fun of pretending we know what the animal thinks led Charlie to suggest this topic for the show. It made me think of books that have animals as main characters and how and if the author chose to put us in the mind of that animal. So that’s what we’re talking about today. It’s an animal lovers’ paradise, complete with silly voices.

Definition time: personification is a noun meaning the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something nonhuman, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form.

So the first obvious thing to unpack is how authors assume one of two things:

  1. We have to get in the mind of the animal and think about what it knows, doesn’t know, and cares about or doesn’t care about.
  2. We pretend the animal acts and thinks like a human.

Segment 2

I also want to get to non-animal personification like plants, objects, etc. but we’ll focus on animals who have their own sentient being-ness first.

Definition: sentient means able to perceive or feel things – presumably emotions and physical sensations (pain, cold, etc.)

Are all sentient beings personification devices?

What is the purpose or use of personification?

So some basic uses include idioms (link) – “the story jumped off the page” – in which the writer uses human characteristics or capabilities to provide action or dimension to an abstract idea. Purposes:

  • To better explain complex ideas (i.e. “opportunity knocks”)
  • Forge a deeper connection with readers (help humans connect with non-humans, empathize)
  • Illustrate a setting (i.e. vines creeping, a dark house looming, clouds hovering)

Does personification lend itself to hyperbole? Well, yeah. Dark and stormy nights become storm-ridden apocalyptic events.

Segment 3

So I know this is a big-time poetry thing, but some of us fiction writers do it without even knowing we have (link). We might think of them as similes or metaphors:

  • The run-down house appeared depressed.
  • The first rays of morning tiptoed through the meadow.
  • He did not realize that his last chance was walking out the door.
  • The bees played hide and seek with the flowers as they buzzed from one to another.
  • The snow swaddled the earth like a mother would her infant child.
  • The river swallowed the earth as the water continued to rise higher and higher.
  • The ocean waves lashed out at the boat, and the storm continued to brew.
  • My computer throws a fit every time I try to use it.

The same link from above makes the distinction between personification and anthropomorphism which is turning animals into human-like creatures (i.e. wears a dress and walks upright). Personification is figurative language. Anthropomorphism is literal – the dog is literally acting human.

So some examples of anthropomorphism:

  • Aslan, Mr. Tumnus, and the Beavers in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  • The “capital G” Goats in Wicked
  • The cast of Animal Farm
  • The cast of pretty much every Disney film – The Fox and the Hound, The Rescuers, Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Oliver and Company, Toy Story (all of them), A Bug’s Life, Cars, Ratatouille
  • The vine in The Floatplane Notebooks
  • The Madagascar movies

In general, personification is imagery and lives at the sentence or paragraph level. 

Anthropomorphism is much bigger and lives at the story or novel level. (link)

This blog from Tor (a big time fantasy book publisher) talks about anthropomorphism with some specific examples and this one talks about why we should consider using animals even in adult narratives. Two things to consider (from the second link, courtesy Chelsea Eckert and Cat Rambo via kittywumbus.com):

  1. “Unless you’re specifically looking to write an allegory, you have to actively avoid making your species and characters allegorical or symbols or stand-ins for something. It’s rather patronizing at best and can get offensive at worst. (FYI, we’re not dealing with allegory in this post.)”
  2. “At the same time, you don’t want to be self-indulgent and make all your characters, like, hyenas just because it’s cool, as much as I totally understand the compulsion. (Did you know that spotted hyenas may have critical thinking skills on par with chimpanzees?)”

There is a fandom (in adult readers) for furry characters. It’s a kind of escapism.

Segment 4

So how do you do it? Glad you asked. This link uses Brian Jacques as an example. He was a British fantasy novelist.

  1. You can vary the degree to which characters in your story behave like humans – there’s something to be said for the shark being a shark, right? But also the Nemo take “fish are friends, not food” take is compelling, too.
  2. You can suggest that human characteristics are universal. Some creatures lend themselves to evil – in Jaques work the foxes were always antagonists, so that seems like a universal thing, right? To be wary of the possibility of betrayal by a fox.
  3. You can tell different stories than you might if these characters were human. Animals have fewer resources – consider Finding Nemo, would that story have worked if it had been a human kid with access to a cell phone?

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