How's that for a title? Wish I could take credit for it, but it comes to you from the brilliant mind of fellow fantasy author Kyle A. Massa, along with today's post on writing. Before that, just wanted to give you a quick update that I've updated the ever-changing Works in Progress chart at the top: Beggar's Rebellion is done! And available on Amazon for the next few days at just .99c! Book Two, Pauper's Empire, is sitting on the docket awaiting a revision before it's (hoped for) March 20th release, and Book Three, Apostate's Pilgrimage, is steaming right along at one third of a first draft! Think that one will get out in time for an April release? We'll see.
Now on to the main event:
Neil Gaiman is a baller.
Okay, that’s not a technical term. But he really is a baller. He writes novels, short stories, graphic novels, movie scripts, essays, and more. There’s tons I could discuss about his career. But today, let’s examine his use of personification.
What is personification, you ask? The New Oxford American Dictionary offers several definitions, including:
Gaiman employs this technique in almost all his works. He takes emotions, concepts, and abstract forces and condenses them into individual entities. This is one of the sharpest arrows in the quiver of fantasy authors, and Neil knows how to use it.
Let’s analyze a few examples, then explore ways to apply it to our own work.
When you picture death as a character, what do you see? Probably a skeletal dude with a black robe and a scythe.
Gaiman's version of Death is completely different. In his classic Sandman comics, Death is a young woman with a Goth wardrobe, big 80s hair, and a rather upbeat demeanor. In issue #8, The Sound of Her Wings, Death offers encouragement and guidance to her little brother, the titular God of Sleep. Fans and critics have loved the character ever since. In fact, Empire Magazine ranked her the 15th best comic book character ever.
Why personify death this way? It’s about more than being different (though that is important). Sandman’s version of death shows us an alternate perspective on the concept itself. Death is frightening, yes, but it can also be merciful. Death isn’t out to get us—it’s just doing its job. And, as the character does in the comics, death can sometimes teach us important lessons about life.
Take note, writers. Personification can change our understanding of forces that might otherwise confound or disturb us.
Having an apocalypse? Don’t forget the Four Horsemen! Neil Gaiman wrote about them in his 1990 novel Good Omens, which he co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett. For those who haven’t heard the Metallica song, The Four Horsemen are Death, Famine, Pestilence (replaced by Pollution in Good Omens), and War. Let’s talk about that last one.
In Gaiman and Pratchett’s novel, war is a character, and her name is Scarlett. Here’s one of the first descriptions we get of her: “Her hair was true auburn, neither ginger nor brown, but a deep and burnished copper-color, and it fell to her waist in tresses men would kill for, and indeed often had.”
The color red conjures images of blood, which is a common ingredient of war. This color choice also reminds us of the idiom “to see red,” which refers to anger, which often incites violence, which is another of war’s essentials. Also, Gaiman and Pratchett take the common hyperbole of a trait worth killing for a make it literal.
So. What can writers learn about personification from Scarlett? Well, unlike Death, there’s nothing especially contradictory about Gaiman and Pratchett’s depiction of War. That’s because personification need not always be subversive; sometimes, writers can successfully turn a concept into a character by finding the overlap between both. War the concept is a fight on an epic scale. So War the character starts fights with her mere presence.
The Technical Boy
Question: If early 2000s technology was a character, what would it look like? Answer: The Technical Boy from American Gods.
The Technical Boy is a chubby kid who digs meaningless buzzwords and Diet Coke. His mannerisms remind one of a teenager who got too famous too fast. Here’s a description: “He wore a long black coat, made of some silky material, and he appeared barely out of his teens: a spattering of acne glistened on one cheek.”
This sort of character could (and probably should) lose relevance as years pass. Gaiman wrote American Gods in 2001, so there are no references to Twitter, live streaming, or phones that function like computers. Yet the character (and the novel itself) remains surprisingly relevant despite all the technological innovations we’ve had in the intervening 18 years.
Why? It’s because of the concept the character represents. New technology is just as arrogant, fleeting, and self-important as it ever was. For writers, the takeaway is this: personification works best when it’s timeless. If Gaiman had leaned too far into then-modern technology when writing this character, it would’ve been obsolete too soon. Rather, he focuses on the traits that will always remain true.
Personification is a unique and effective literary technique. Neil Gaiman is one of the best to ever use it, and therefore a baller. I used personification myself in my novel Gerald Barkley Rocks, I hope to similar effect. Did I succeed? I guess you’ll just have to read the book to find out…
Anyway, I hope these tips have helped. Thank you to Levi for sharing this post, and thank you to you for reading it. Now get out there and write!
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