How to personify non-human characters in writing

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17 September 2021
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Author Louise Fein describes how she gave a voice to a condition, epilepsy, in her latest novel
How to personify non-human characters in writing Images

Personification, or perhaps to be perfectly correct, I should say anthropomorphism, of non-human characters is nothing new. There are numerous examples in children’s literature, often with animals assuming human characteristics, emotions and morals, for example in Winnie-the-Pooh, Paddington Bear or Alice in Wonderland. But it is also used, perhaps less often, in adult literature. For example, in The Book Thief, Markus Zusak used death as a character who narrated the book with something of a whimsical voice, sympathetic to human tragedy but also uncomprehending of human behaviour. In the satirical novel Animal Farm, George Orwell gives the rebellious pigs in the book human characteristics, a device to demonstrate the failure of the Soviet Union to truly hand power to its people.

I will take a moment here to look at the difference between personification and anthropomorphism. The former is used figuratively, that is, assigning human traits to non-human objects or concepts. For example, one might say, that cake is asking to be eaten! Anthropomorphism is where a non-human object or concept is being or behaving as a human.    

In my latest historical fiction novel, The Hidden Child, I have used anthropomorphism to create a character of the condition, epilepsy. I would love to say I had planned it, but that is not how the character came about. As a writer, I fall into the category of the ‘pantser’ not the ‘planner’. This method has both benefits and drawbacks. For me, the first draft is where the main plot develops, I get to know my characters and subplots and additional themes arise. My characters behave in ways I don’t expect and depths and motivations I couldn’t have known without writing them. When writing The Hidden Child, I had intended to write part of the story from the point of view of Mabel, a little girl who has epilepsy. But her voice just wouldn’t work. Instead, out of nowhere came the voice of epilepsy itself. A sinister, mocking voice which stayed, and Mabel’s was scrapped.

This character probably originated a long time before I even knew I was going to write this book. When my own young daughter was very sick with a severe form of epilepsy, I wrote a poem which talked of the ‘monster’ she carried inside. I suppose the character of epilepsy in my book stemmed from how I saw that awful condition which, at the time, had stolen my daughter away from us.  

If one is to use an anthropomorphic character, I believe it needs to it have a distinct purpose and be bound to the main narrative of the story, so that it doesn’t feel forced. In The Hidden Child, epilepsy has its own character development, plot and even a twist which intertwines with the main story. It took several drafts and lots of re-working to get all of this to work.

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The main part of the story is told in close third person through two main characters, Eleanor and Edward, Mabel’s parents. Mabel is four years old and her inability to have a say in her own fate is reflected in her silence in the book. Epilepsy’s short chapters are in a mixture of first and second person and are delivered at intervals throughout the book, a little like a Greek chorus reflecting on the main narrative of the story as it progresses. Having this voice gave me the ability to show what was happening to Mabel from an omniscient perspective which could opine on the behaviour of humans, not only those in the story, but in a wider context also. It enabled me to show what was happening to Mabel when she was institutionalised as she didn’t have a voice of her own, and she was away from her parents.

Using non-human characters in books grounded in reality – i.e., those which are not intended as metaphor, fantasy, science fiction or magical realism – is possible, but care should be taken in making sure this part of the narrative is embedded in the main story line. It could be considered a risk, and some readers may not take to it, but on the other hand using such a device can add depth and a way of giving a different and unusual perspective to a story. If you are considering using such a character, then don’t be afraid to play around with it. You may scrap it, but that is okay too. Experimentation can be both fun and rewarding, plus may just generate something unique and special.

The Hidden Child by Louise Fein is published by Head of Zeus

 

If you're interested in conveying mental health in your writing, read what author Abbie Greaves has to say about how she represents mental health in her fiction.