Writing Reality: Personification of Autumn

09/12/2013 at 05:45 (Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


There’s a familiar wind back in the city this week. It wears a blue cape and likes to hurl itself up and down the cobbles, whistling through its teeth. The trees, once decked out in their finest gold, now shiver and quake in the sight of its cold eye. I turn my collar up, walking to and from work through crisp black shadows, and that wind waits on my doorstep, ready to leap out and slap me upside the head with quick cold fingers.

Autumn is my favourite time of year, for its colours and its medley of imagery. Beginning with a faint song of melancholy in the brassy light and the changing west wind, it ends with high wreaths of silver in the trees, white mornings like diamonds strewn by a passing queen. The forests turn quiet with the cold, ready and waiting for midwinter freeze; they buckle on armour and lower their heads to the stiffening winds. The sun is a capricious fellow, at times grumpy and sullen as he winds his grey scarf about his throat, while on other days he will grin with a hard, shining mouth. Leaves skirl and dance; they twine gold necklaces about the roots of their erstwhile fathers, where some flicker-flames still cling on for dear life with numb little twigs, in the face of that wind … But all become mulch in the soil, at the end.

These are all examples of word imagery. The wind does not wear a cape or have a mouth full of teeth, though it is a concrete noun. It has no thoughts or emotions, and is governed by nature, which in turn is no more caring or hateful towards mankind than we are able to completely control it.

When writing, it often pays to give human sentience / characteristics to non-human beings and concepts. This can help the audience to understand and appreciate the latter more, through emotional context and relativity.

To say that the wind is fierce in its intensity, is to lend it a recognizable emotion – we’ve all felt fierce at some point, when our eyes burned and our mouths ran dry; when we felt ready to tear ourselves apart over a situation.
Likewise, we know what teeth are capable of doing – they tear, rend, cause bitter pain, chew food, click together with irritation. To say that this north wind, back in my home city once more (and likely to be a lodger for the next four months) has sharp teeth that he likes to use on my skin, is just a more interesting way of saying, “The wind is bloody cold.”

To give something emotional resonance is to engage with it, whether on a positive or negative level – I know I’ve cursed that wind many a time for daring to fling pellets of rain in my face, but really, what is the point of getting cross at something that neither bears me ill will, nor laughs at my numb fingers? Still, it makes me feel better to swear at it.

Personification is everywhere; we hear it all the time, lending personal features to otherwise abstract concepts. Father Christmas, Grandfather Time; Cupid as the embodiment of Love; and in Richard Adams’ Watership Down, the Black Rabbit of Inle is the personification of fear, death and inevitability:

black rabbit

“‘Now as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inle is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off… We come into the world and we have to go: but we do not go merely to serve the turn of one enemy or another…We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inle, and only by his will.” – pg 276, Watership Down, Richard Adams

By the same token, the rabbits of this novel are subject to anthropomorphism. This is similar to personification, and while both give emotional and physical attributes to non-humans / inanimate objects and concepts, I find that anthropomorphism seems better suited to the creatures, while personification appeals more to the abstracts. For example, Bigwig is made an officer of the Efrafan Owsla – he is an anthropomorphic example of rabbit leadership and governing, with the contextual rationality and intelligence involved that is not usually attributed to their natural way of life:

“‘What can you do?”
‘I can run and fight and spoil a story telling it. I’ve been an officer in an Owsla.’
‘Fight, can you? Could you fight him?’ said Woundwort, looking at Campion.
‘Certainly, if you wish.’ The stranger reared up and aimed a heavy cuff at Campion, who leapt back just in time.” – pg 317

He can also be seen as the embodiment of that military spirit of “do-or-die” attitude.

In this way, the rabbits are allowed to develop behavioural patterns, mannerisms and dialogue similar to that of humans; this allows the audience to engage with and respond to them on a deeper level. Their instinctive reactions are somewhat quelled, to allow personalities to develop and the narrative to progress, rather than each rabbit scattering aimlessly and without thought. Much of the novel hinges upon planning, strategies and tactics which would not be applicable in reality.

A Simile is a figure of speech used when comparing one thing to another that is otherwise unlike it, by way of adding the words “like” and “as”, to create an image that will enhance writing:

“He ran through the field; it was as though his feet had wings.”
“She was young and fair, and looked like a lily, clad all in white.”

Said images rely on the audience having some contextual knowledge of what makes up the target comparative element; they must have an awareness of the lily being white and smooth, and of wings being capable of flight, thus lending connotations of speed to the feet. A simile won’t work when the target falls short of what the image intends (though this can sometimes be used for comic / sarcastic effect):

“That’s as clear as mud.”

“The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.”

But when it does work, a simile can drive home a memorable message with emotional resonance:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” – Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, Blade Runner, 1982

Only take care that the two elements you use for comparison are equal in part to what they convey when standing alone, in order for them to work in a combined context. A lily flower is different to a young woman in that it is a plant, and does not possess sentience; but it does hold connotations of grace, beauty and pale smoothness, which can be positively aligned with her appearance in a simile. Put into another context with a different setting, this can also be used in a negative sense to convey her paleness and sorrow, perhaps after illness or a death, as the latter has connotative links with the flower.

A Metaphor is when “a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”; this is in keeping with Simile, but in a more subtle way than actively telling the audience something is like or as another. With a metaphor, these words are omitted, and the audience is left with the bare bones of the image.

“He walked with a stony step and an icy gaze; none dared get in his way.”

A stone is not a man, nor can ice actually stay in the eye. But the qualities of both (hardness, cold) and the subsequent connotations (determination, implacability; unfriendliness, lacking emotion) are useful when conveying an image of someone powerful and difficult to approach or sway from their path. But one way to upset the balance would be to throw too many comparisons in at once – especially when they conflict with the overall image:

Ice lived in his heart. He smouldered with the flames of his anger; it was eating him alive.”

The symbolism of fire = anger, doesn’t sit well with the image of a “cold-hearted” man. Fire would extinguish itself in the cold, ice would melt. Although we’re not dealing with literal meanings here, it’s still worth paying attention to what connotative messages you are sending out with metaphors / similes used.
On the other hand, this can be useful when applied to another character to create a large-scale metaphor of conflict, perhaps in a relationship:

“The flames of her temper often thawed his heart. He couldn’t help but laugh, in spite of himself.”

Try wherever possible to create your own imagery. There are many tired metaphors and similes out there, which have been strung up as clichés – they work at a pinch, but can often lead to a trite tone in a piece of writing. Look around; take in as much of the world as possible. I make a note of every image that strikes me while out and about – the sky strewn with cumulus clouds like pebbles on the beach (simile); the full blue cape of night, thrown about the shoulders of the world (metaphor / personification).

Always be prepared to record more, and hoard them like treasure, because if you’re anything like me, the hard work will really begin once you’re sat down to write. As obvious as this sounds, you can make life a bit easier (and save time) by having a stockpile of key words / phrases to use in imagery. It beats staring at the screen or paper, rummaging through your memory for something you knew you wanted to say.

Unless you’re referring to the inside of your head as a blank sheet, of course.

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5 Comments

  1. Carrie said,

    I got lost in your dreamy imagery for a moment there…

    • celenagaia33 said,

      You’re a gem for saying so 😉 I must admit, I had the most fun with that part. As much as I like the dissection of language, it’s the shuttlerun of imagery which is always preferable.

  2. drewchial said,

    This article conveys the importance of its message with an example up front, a quick narrative that draws you in. Then it bounces back and forth from example to explanation. Well done. This is the sort of piece that would sit well in a book on writing.

  3. Gunmetal Geisha said,

    So very excellent.

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