267 – Anthropomorphism and Personification
One of them is evocative language, and the other is an animal or inanimate object with googly eyes. But which is which? And how are you supposed to use them once you figure out the answer? That’s what we’re talking about this week. We’ll discuss the advantages of anthropomorphized characters, the implications of having them, and why they’re so popular. Plus, a quick lesson on personified language, and Oren goofs about which BoJack Horseman character is which.
Generously transcribed by Svend. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Wes: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes, and with me today is Oren and Chris, and today we’re talking about two terms that are by far and large used synonymously, but I’m going to explain how that’s wrong, and I’m probably not going to get a lot of fans from this, but it’s fine. And so I’m just going to need to qualify that I’m going to localize anthropomorphism and personification as literary devices, to clear this up.
Oren: I’m glad because I looked these up in preparation for this podcast and the definitions that I found on literary terms.net were the same, but it also says “This is a personification” and “This is an anthropomorphism”, and they were the same thing. I don’t get it. Which one is it?
Wes: It’s incredibly frustrating. I think the challenge is that personification has that word person in it and it’s also easier to pronounce. Anthropomorphism is quite a mouthful, and I’m sure I’m going to mispronounce it throughout the rest of this episode, but the easy TLDR here is it is anthropomorphism if whatever thing is being anthropomorphized is basically a character or a narrator. Full stop. That’s it. And then it’s personification if it’s describing something as if it were human. It’s only description. So the difference is, the anthropomorphism is literal in the story. Personification is figurative in the story.
Chris: Personification is fancy description.
Wes: Exactly. So if we say that the wind howls or the clouds weep, that is personification because the clouds do not weep, but we’re using that because it’s more evocative, because humans weep. And so that resonates on some level. And I think that’s why we’d like to use that type of language.
Another way that you can remember that anthropomorphism is about literal things like your brave little toaster, having eyes and emotions that are typically human, is the word itself. Anthro, so “human”. And morphos, “form”. Human form. There it is.
Chris: I still think it’s a bad word. I still think whoever made up that word is bad at their job. It’s too long!
Wes: We can blame whoever really liked Greek words because that’s what we have. I do agree though, it’d be nice if there was something a little bit more accessible, really. Shorter, easier, cleaner.
Oren: All right, here. I got it. Humanify. That’s easy, right?
Wes: You need to trademark that immediately. Oren will show you how to properly humanify things for your stories.
Oren: Yeah, that doesn’t sound awkward at all.
Wes: We should probably mention really quickly the other meaning of personification, and this is used more loosely. It’s not in the same sense of the literary term and it basically means that someone or something embodies a particular quality or concept. And so basically all Pantheonic faiths, those are personifications. So Thor is meant to be the personification of thunder and lightning, and so he’s thunder and lightning given human form. It’s basically saying, “That human essence is this abstract concept given human form”. It’s very much still anthropomorphism, I think, but for some reason that’s included in the dictionary and we have to talk about it.
Oren: What about if you say, if someone’s really mad, “That person is the personification of anger”? Because that’s the thing someone would say.
Wes: Yeah. You can say that. It’s just like you might say that the absolute monarch of your fantasy kingdom is the personification of modesty. You’re basically saying that that person is the exact embodiment of this concept.
Chris: Well, that’s figurative, right?
Wes: Yes, it is figurative. Yes.
Chris: So we’re saying they’re figuratively the personification of modesty. Whereas if they were actually, literally the personification of modesty, they would be a spirit or god-like figure that is modesty. Like death. If we have death as a character, that’s literally the personification of death.
Wes: Which has been anthropomorphized into a humanoid shape, and therefore, anthropomorphism.
Chris: It’s too much. It’s all spaghetti. It’s all tangled together.
Wes: The other thing here is, more often than not, it’s probably anthropomorphism. If you’re doing The Lion King, pick a Disney movie, it’s anthropomorphism. But we tend to personify things more as writers because it’s more evocative. It’s better at imagery. Oren, you had an example of the town huddled. The town itself cannot huddle, people huddle, and so it’s personification.
Oren: Right, until Disney or Pixar makes a Towns: The Animated Movie where it’s a bunch of little towns with googly eyes and they’re like, “Hey, we exist!” And I’m like, “I have so many questions”.
Wes: That’s a perfect example of anthropomorphism right there. We want everything to be little tiny humans with cute smiles and googly eyes.
Oren: Man, I cannot think of an anthropomorphized universe that does not have horrifying implications. You’ve got Mouse Guard, which is all about anthropomorphized mice, and it’s like, “Okay, does that mean everything in this setting is sapient, or just the mice?” And if it’s just the mice, then does that mean that all predators are sapient and they have to live by constantly murdering other sapient creatures?
Wes: I remember in elementary school really enjoyed the Redwall books and the food descriptions in those are phenomenal. And then I remember thinking, even as a kid, “Wait, how do they get cheese?” Are cows just voluntarily making it for them? Who is doing this?
Chris: Is it mouse milk cheese?
Wes: Is it mouse milk cheese?
Oren: Okay, look, it could be mouse milk cheese. That only squicks us out because we don’t typically make cheese from our species’ own milk because it’s more efficient to get it from cows.
But the thing about the Redwall books is that Redwall solves this problem with racism because in Redwall it’s like, “Hey, these animals, the vegetarian ones, are good animals, and the ones who eat meat are bad animals”. And so that’s the solution. It’s “Yes, it’s true that everything is sapient. And it’s true that predators are evil, because they exist. And so therefore they’re bad”. Whereas Mouse Guard doesn’t do that. And so it has a lot more questions, but less racism.
Wes: So we’ve really been talking a lot about the differences between the two and the rationale. And personification is commonplace because it’s figurative and hopefully it doesn’t add unnecessary style to your writing. Anthropomorphism is something that is a good tool for writers to consider. And I saw online a good example of why anthropomorphism can let us tell stories that we would not be able to tell otherwise if we just had human characters. And this story was Finding Nemo. You can’t do Finding Nemo with humans. You have to anthropomorphize the fish. Otherwise the plot breaks. It doesn’t work. We don’t keep people in aquariums.
Chris: One way I think about anthropomorphism versus personification is that anthropomorphism is always speculative fiction because we’re changing reality. And I do think that in general, ideally, your speculative fiction story depends on those speculative fiction elements and you can’t take them out or the plot breaks. What would Toy Story be if those weren’t toys?
Oren: I would argue that you can do these stories without anthropomorphized animals. You would have to change a few specifics, but not much. It’s not hard to do a story about a human who loses their kid and has to team up with a weirdo to go through alien environments to find their kid. That’s actually pretty common. It can’t specifically be a clownfish because that’s not a human anymore, but in this case, the fact that it is an animal adds some important and, I would say, useful qualities. For one thing, it’s novel. Animals are cool and novel and also cute, so it adds novelty that’s useful.
It also often makes the stakes feel a little bit less intense, which is one of the reasons why it’s useful for stories for younger kids. Not always though, because my favorite example of a story that is anthropomorphized for no reason, other than that without it, it would be a miserable story, is BoJack Horseman. There’s really no plot reason that BoJack Horseman has to be a horse man or why his girlfriend has to be a cat. You could turn all of those characters into humans, and you would barely have to change anything about the story. And yet watching that sounds like a nightmare. I don’t want to watch that. And I think it’s because BoJack Horseman is about very low stakes—at least low in terms of life threatening—low stakes, high drama, personal stories. And the fact that they’re all animals is something that gives it novelty to keep us interested. While we get attached to the characters, if BoJack Horseman wasn’t a horse man, he would just be a jackass. Boom. Puns, good. And we would never watch the show long enough to get attached to him. Him having a horse head is what makes the show worth watching. The show is the horse head. Mind blown.
Wes: Mind blown. You bring up a really good point. Anthropomorphism really can help spark imagination, create more vivid characters—not necessarily BoJack, but other stories. And you see this a lot, Chris said, in speculative fiction. And so of course we’ve looked at folk tales, children’s stories, fairy tales, and there are symbolic dimensions that come if your protagonist is a horse or your protagonist is a wolf. That’s going to be associated with it because we all have symbolic associations with certain types of animals. There’s a reason why George Orwell picked the pigs as the ones who take over the farm in Animal Farm. Pigs are associated with greed generally, even though they get a bad rap. They’re really delightful.
Oren: I thought it was because pigs are very smart in real life.
Wes: Well, they are really smart in real life.
Oren: Oh no. George, George, why are you demeaning the pigs?
Wes: How rude. But it makes sense too that he has the sheep in the story that blindly follow the pigs’ orders. And he also has Boxer, who—I’m not sure if Boxer’s a Clydesdale or just a really big, strong horse.
Oren: He big. That’s all I know.
Wes: And he’s also perhaps the personification of hard work.
Oren: One thing to be careful of, speaking of personification, again, if you’re doing spec fic, which you probably are if you’re listening to us, is being careful with how you personify things, because readers will very often read that as foreshadowing. If you describe a dragon pin and it’s eyes seeming to look around the room and sparkle with an inner life, a lot of readers are going to think that means that dragon pin’s real and it’s going to come alive soon. And if it doesn’t, then they’ll be like “But the dragon pin, with the spark—were you lying to me? Did it not actually sparkle with an inner light?” ust go on the internet and tell lies.
Wes: Yeah, that’s great advice because we all want it to do that. We all just want your jewelry or your phone to spring to life and just do something. We crave it.
Chris: Especially the beginning of the story where the audience is still learning about the world. If you have a very specific world and they already know what the rules are for what is magical and what is not, and the themes that the world follows, then it’s a little bit easier to put those things in because they already know, just like for the real world, what is clearly not going to happen. But especially in the beginning that can really trip somebody up.
Oren: Because at the beginning they’re still learning your genre convention. They don’t know which tropes you’re using.
Chris: It’s hard to imagine how little context somebody has when they start your story, what it’s like to start that fresh, because we already know what our worlds are about and sometimes what’s going to happen. Maybe not if you’re discovery writing, but for the most part, we know those things, so it can be hard to imagine the amount of thinking that a person has to do when they start a story. Just figuring out, What is happening? Where are people, what are they doing? Very basic things like that, and it’s very easy to throw a wrench in that.
Wes: So if you are doing a story with anthropomorphized characters and main character, you probably should make it clear that your main character is a cat when describing that character early on. Somehow. You do not want to save that unless you’re planning some very strange reveal.
Oren: Reminds me of the opening of A Spell for Chameleon where it doesn’t describe anywhere what the main character looks like or what he is. His name is Bink, which is a weird name. And then he starts thinking about going to centaur school, and I’m like, “Is Bink a centaur?” And he’s not a centaur. It means it’s a school where centers teach. I have no way to know that from just these opening paragraphs. It sounds like he might be a centaur.
Chris: I just know that after this podcast, I might get like a question in our Q&A box that’s like “Okay, I have a main character that’s a cat. How do I gracefully work in that this character is a cat?” We get all kinds of questions like that. It’s really hard to answer those questions because there’s just so many different things that you can do and it’s so context dependent. It’s like, Your character could start licking their paws and washing them. What kind of anthropomorphic cat do we have? Because there’s a lot of variation. Does your main character wear clothes, for instance, and all of these different levels of just how human-like that animal is.
Oren: Excuse me, Chris. Some cats were sweaters. Let’s not rule that out. I don’t want to live in a world where my cat isn’t allowed to wear a sweater. Another thing that’s very useful for describing what your character looks like if they are a fantasy creature or if they are in a world with fantasy creatures, is by contrasting them with something else. If your character is a fairy, they might see a human and be like, “Whoa. That human was very tall. Unlike me, a fairy, who is really small. And they don’t have wings, unlike me, a fairy who does have wings.” And just write it exactly like that!
Wes: That’s perfect writing.
Oren: Take that out of the transcript, copy, paste it into your document and you will win a Hugo. I promise.
Wes: So we mentioned that anthropomorphism adds novelty. And I have a question for you, too. Does it always add novelty?
Oren: I mean, only a Sith deals in absolutes, but I can’t think of a story that had anthropomorphized characters that didn’t add novelty. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any out there. Just not off the top of my head, no.
Chris: I would say for the most part, yes, but with some caveats. For any genre or subgenre of speculative fiction, any tropes can eventually get old. But at the same time, often there is still a dedicated group of fans of that subgenre that continue to be attached to and like and get benefits from things that might be old to other people. It’s not quite as shiny as it used to be. And for instance, it’s hard to imagine animal characters ever getting old. They’ve been around for a really long time. And sometimes they change as our views of animals change and our notions about animals change—and our memes about animals change.
And you can depict them in new and fresh ways to help maintain their novelty. And then, what are we comparing it to? Because if we have a story where it was just about people and that’s our context, and then the one thing we’re changing is making those people animals, that’s going to be more novel. It just is. The other thing that I would generally mention is again, with the theming in your world building, I don’t necessarily recommend always adding animals personified—sorry, not personified. I have just learned today by teacher Wes, anthropomorphized. Anthropomorphized animals. Just throwing those in there in a setting that’s cosmic horror is not necessarily going to be a good addition to your story.
Wes: But Lovecraft tried. I’ve read some of the ones with the cats that are basically humans and…oof.
Chris: Wait. There are Lovecraft stories about cats that are humans? I know there’s fish people, the Deep Ones.
Wes: I think they do qualify probably as anthropomorphized because in the story that I’m recalling—which I think is The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which I cannot recommend. I just need to let that land. I cannot recommend this—the main character, Randolph Carter, gets taken to the moon by the cats, and then there’s a space battle on the moon where the cats are fighting some other alien race and they can talk but also fly in space. He really liked cats. It was bad. It was very bad.
Chris: That sounds like it has theming that’s all over the place and is just really silly as a result.
Wes: He’s certainly not well known for his dream world stories because they’re all very bad. And the cats feature in that pretty prominently.
Oren: Let me tell you, it’s real weird when you’re playing Call of Cthulhu and the GM decides you’re going to do a Dreamlands adventure. Because you stop playing cosmic horror and now you’re playing D&D, is what it feels like. Because Dreamlands are just kind of a generic fantasy setting with some occasional weirdness in them. And so it’s like, I’ve got my Call of Cthulhu character here, and I’m playing D&D, and this is real strange.
Wes: That’s the best way to describe that. That’s exactly what it’s like.
Oren: But another thing that anthropomorphized characters do beyond simply adding novelty is they almost inherently come with certain themes and allow the audience to suspend their disbelief and not think about certain things before the purpose of the theming. So Toy Story is a good example. Now, if you did the same plot of Toy Story, but with regular humans being like literal play things for giant monster people and they had to pretend to not be alive whenever those monster people were around, that’s horrifying. That is a horrifying thought. It’s not a fun story, but with Toy Story, because they’re toys, it’s very easy for us to watch and just accept that premise, even though within the internal logic of the universe, it’s still extremely horrifying and also really weird. The kid who makes his own custom toys is evil. It’s easier for us to accept that and fewer people ask questions because the characters as anthropomorphized toys come with certain themes that we just kind of accept because that’s what they are.
Chris: Did you know that in Toy Story 4 the kid just makes a random toy in her preschool? It’s just a spork with googly eyes and it comes to life and it’s really sad that it’s not trash and it wants to go back in the trashcan. This is really a thing that happens in Toy Story 4. It is kind of horrifying.
Oren: I’ve never even seen Toy Story 3. I saw Toy Story 2 and it was bad and I was really confused when everyone was excited for Toy Story 3. And I never watched it. And it sounds like Toy Story 4 just goes further.
Chris: I don’t know if I’d say Toy Story 4 is terrible, but it does take this premise to a place where I had not expected by really saying that anything that a child takes, and then, for instance, scribbles eyes and a mouth on, suddenly comes to life. It’s horrifying.
Oren: Why do the toys from the factory? Those aren’t made by children. I mean, some of them are. They shouldn’t be. Is that how you can tell if a factory is using child labor? Those are the toys that come to life—oh no. Oh no.
Wes: You’re about to write Toy Story 5, aren’t you, Oren? We gotta get to the bottom of this.
Oren: Pandora’s box is open. We can’t ever close it again, I’m sorry. It’s just an endless stream of horror.
Chris: That’s why some premises just aren’t made to be examined. You should just leave it. If you don’t cover it in the story and don’t make it plot relevant, nobody will look too closely at it and then people won’t be horrified. But Toy Story 4 decided to go there.
Wes: It’s almost like—and this is something that you can do with anthropomorphism much more easily, although we just showed that it can backfire—that maybe there’s a message and maybe Toy Story 4, okay, “This toy that was made is created, and wants to be trash.” And we’re the writers thinking, “We’re going to do a story about nihilism. This toy that came to life simply wants to not exist. And we’re going to explore that through anthropomorphized toys.” But because they’re toys, a really heavy theme is lightened.
That’s also nice because it works with anthropomorphized animals. When we talk about Smokey the bear and other types of stories that are trying to convey messages for younger audiences because they might resonate more with watching dogs and cats do and learn about respecting other sapient creatures and showing that all animals are sapient and we should treat them with respect. So it definitely gives you a little bit of leverage there and gets you outside of that human box that you might be trapped in.
Oren: What we’ve learned from Smokey the bear is that you need bears to brainwash children into not starting fires. Because they won’t do it if a human tells them not to. It’s just going to want to start the fire more.
Wes: You really don’t want a bear upset with you.
Chris: Well, in Toy Story 4 the toys are often a metaphor for parenting, actually, in the Toy Story series. So Toy Story 4—Toy Story 3 was about watching your kid grow up and letting them go. Andy goes off to college in Toy Story 3 and then Toy Story 4 is basically about being an empty nester and having a life beyond kids. And so I think that the horrifying created spork toy that wanted to be in the garbage instead of being played with was supposed to play into that theme of having a life other than kids.
Oren: I don’t know how they expect these toys to be a metaphor for adulthood if they don’t have to pay rent or get depression. This seems silly. I don’t, I don’t get it.
Wes: I want to circle back to Finding Nemo because I would like to add a little bit about why that story works with fish. Yes, Oren is correct. Of course, we could change the elements, keep the story basically the same, but what’s neat is if you have a passion for something in the natural or unnatural world—for example, you are very much into birds, and you know a lot about birds, and you might be able to tell a compelling airborne story through anthropomorphized birds, much in the way that Finding Nemo told a very compelling story that got to explore an underwater paradise/nightmare in some parts.
So that gets back to the novelty factor, but it also lets you play with things in different ways, much like how The Lion King is anthropomorphized characters. It’s drawing on blind pride culture in the savannah to effectively just retell Hamlet. It’s just the Hamlet story with some minor changes. But it’s completely nuanced and stands alone because of the setting and the animals and things like that. It’s pretty cool, what you can do with that shift in how you’re literally constructing your characters.
Chris: One question I have is, it does feel like there is a strong link between anthropomorphism and stories for children, and it may just be that children are always playing with inanimate objects and they love animals. And those things go together. There are some darker stories that involve that, but they’re fewer and farther in between. I’m wondering if it’s just that it’s association with children or that we need time to get used to the idea of anthropomorphizing things so that it doesn’t feel silly anymore. Beause if it feels silly, then it’s definitely harder to use in a dark story.
Oren: If I had to guess, I would say that anthropomorphized stories work pretty well for children’s stories because children are even more attached to novelty than adults are, would be my guess. And there’s also just custom. A lot of this is just that Disney, the man—not just the company, but the person Walt Disney—was very foundational to America’s animation industry, and he wanted to make stuff for kids. So that made a very strong push towards animation being for kids. And anthropomorphism is much more common in animated stories than in live action. And that border is starting to blur now. Thanks, Cats.
To a certain extent, there’s just that tradition, that started for a somewhat arbitrary reason. But I do think that, at least from my experience—admittedly limited experience—with kids, it’s harder to get a kid to sit down and watch something, because, “Don’t worry, little Timmy, in a few hours, you’re going to get a really good reveal about how you shouldn’t concentrate too much power in one set of hands.” And it’s like, “What? No, I don’t want to watch that and we’ll play outside.” Or, “Here’s a talking fox.” Oh yeah. Way into it now.
Chris: I’d like to go back to the point you were making about animation versus live action, because certainly when it comes to anthropomorphizing something that is not even humanoid, it is definitely in many ways easier to just animate that character than it is to bring into live action. And obviously we’ve gotten better at live action and we have a number of techniques. I don’t know that CG is always what we’ll want to use—but that starts to look animated, if we use CG. So I think that means that if we are depicting in visuals and we tend towards animations, then often we end up with something that is simplified visuals.
I mean, animation can be really dark, too. It doesn’t have to be light, but it still has that same association with children, and when we simplify things. Whereas darker stories are associated with realism. And so live action in some ways does lend itself very well to dark stories because of that realism aspect.
Oren: Well, that’s certainly true. However, speaking of realism, we are realistically out of time for this episode. Boom. Segue.
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