Anthropomorphism and personification both ascribe human qualities to inanimate or living things like animals or clocks. They’re used differently, however, in literature, movies, music, and other creative venues. Let’s examine each more closely.
According to Oxford Dictionaries, here are the definitions:
- Anthropomorphism: The attribution of human characteristics or behaviors to an animal, object, or a god.
- Personification: The attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something non-human, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form.
Well, that leaves a little to be desired, doesn’t it? It doesn’t really explain how they’re different. Another way you could look at it is:
- Anthropomorphism is literal. Speaking animals or objects who talk, think, or behave like humans are all anthropomorphic. Think of Thomas the Tank Engine, Winnie the Pooh, or Peter Rabbit. They literally act as if human.
- Personification is figurative. Do you sometimes feel like your computer hates you, especially when it’s not working right? Well, it can’t literally hate you because it’s not human.
Let’s take another example. Do you feel when your dog urinates inside while you’re at work that he’s retaliating for leaving him home alone? Well, you’re ascribing a human characteristic to a dog which is personification. On the other hand, if you came home and your dog pointed at the urine spot and said, "See what happens when you leave me home alone?" that’s anthropomorphism. (However, if your dog starts talking to you, you maybe want to see a professional.)
Examples in literature and real life
Anthropomorphism is easy to find. Children’s books and Disney movies are rife with animals and objects that act like humans. The movies Cars, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and Guardians of the Galaxy are all anthropomorphisms. And think of great literature like Animal Farm, Watership Down, or The Jungle Book. By the way, who is your favorite talking dog on television? Mine is Brian Griffin.
Personification is a little more difficult. Anytime someone refers to the wind howling or a premonition like cold fingers up your spine, it’s personification. When you feel like chocolate is calling your name or your bed is looking at you invitingly, that’s personification. Do you call your car a "she" or "he"?
You can also represent abstract concepts through personification. We all want justice to be blind because people deserve equal treatment under the law, right? We refer to Father Time and Death with human-like characteristics.
When you look up synonyms for personification, you get "essence" or "representation." Synonyms for anthropomorphism are "humanlike" or "humanoid."
Another way to look at personification is someone who represents an abstract concept. For instance, who is the personification of evil? Some might say Hitler while others point to more current world leaders.
So when writing the next best-selling novel, if the tree branches in the woods reach out to grab your main character as she’s running, that’s personification. But if those same trees pull up their roots, chase her down, and threaten to tear her limb from limb, that’s anthropomorphism. And a terrible premise for a horror novel. Unless you’re Stephen King. He could pull it off.