Personification and Zoomorphism: Figurative Language Bootcamp #2

The menagerie of figurative language is large, unruly, a great joy to study. Last week, we explored its three most essential forms: simile, metaphor, and symbolism. Today, we reach forward to two more specific species: personification and zoomorphism.


Personification refers to any simile, metaphor, or symbol that lends human qualities to something nonhuman.

In fiction, personification can be really useful in animating a setting, or in emphasizing the importance of some nonhuman entity. When characters treat or think of an animal, place, concept, or object in human terms, the personified element can nearly become a character, with motivations, conflicts, and agency.

Sometimes, we might choose to literally make an inanimate object into a character. A student of mine once wrote a short story from the perspective of a door. One of my college-day stories was peopled by the nine personified planets of the solar system.

Personification gives an aliveness to elements of our stories that can engage the reader, express harmony in the world or paranoid malevolence. Personification is, indeed, a trusty friend.

Lazy clouds, vibrant leaves, slumbering fjord, and autumn visiting.


Personification’s animal counterpart, zoomorphism invokes the qualities of animals to make inanimate objects more alive or human beings more wild. It too can appear as any one of the three core forms–similes, metaphors, and symbols can all perform this trick.

In the world of English literature, we often neglect zoomorphism. In fact, as recently as two years ago, I told a student to whom I was explaining personification, when he asked about the name of the literary device for comparing people with animals, that English did not have a term for this. The student, Palestinian, told me that similes, metaphors, allegories, etc. comparing people with animals were a central device in Arabic literature.

The more I thought about it, the more I recognized the plentitude of such figurative language in English literature too. Certainly I would not call it “central,” but it is undoubtedly present, robust, and worthy of attention. Low and behold, we do have a term, albeit one that, at least in my own educational background, has rarely if ever been discussed. I’d like to give zoomorphism a more prominent place both in our writing and our reading. I think it has a unique perspective to offer us. I now teach zoomorphism alongside personification in my literature classes, and I consider it more explicitly in my own writing.

Zoomorphism’s effects range wide. While zoomorphism that transforms inanimate objects can have a similar effect to the personification discussed above, the comparison of a human being to an animal is a different beast altogether. In particular contexts, it can be demeaning. In others, uplifting. Culturally, particular animals carry a range of connotations, which we writers can play with to get desired effects. A person slithering is very different from one galloping; a command barked is at odds with a request purred.

A herd of trees, a flock of houses, sky blue as a peacock’s feather, cool air snapping like a dog.

For today, that’s it. It’s the end of a big week, and it is good to rest. Best wishes to you all. Thanks for stopping by.


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