The Personality of Emotion and Traits

I just returned from a writing workshop armed with new ideas, excited by possibilities I discovered there and bubbling with enthusiasm to share my experience with you.

One of the exercises I found particularly meaningful gave me a new way to paint a vivid picture of one of my own stumbling blocks – a habit I had never named.

The main ingredient in this exercise is personification – a type of metaphor in which a personal characteristic, quality, emotion or an idea is described as if it were human.  This switch in perspective adds personality, energy and emotion to an otherwise neutral word or phrase.

Personification can help you identify personal qualities that you may be unaware of and have projected onto others, echoing some part of yourself that you may have repressed or denied.  What old way of being needs to be released to allow your new self-image to emerge?

Read through this entire article before beginning to write.  Then go back and try one step at a time as it is laid out below. You can complete this entire exercise quickly or spend as much time as you choose.

STEP ONE:  Begin with the prompt, “What transformation – what new way of being – can I imagine for myself?”  Free-write for 5 to 10 minutes while remaining open and allowing whatever is on your mind to emerge.

After writing, reread what has been written and underline or circle words and phrases that pop or made you cringe.  Or you can simply pick a word or two from the paragraph if you like.

STEP TWO:  Turn the words from the previous write into between 5 and 10 questions to ask yourself.

STEP THREE:  Compose a 10-word statement from your questions to sum up your discoveries.   Reframe this 10-word statement into a single word or phrase that describes a quality of being such as forgiveness, creativity, panic, unhappiness, truth, blame, inspiration, longing, etc.  I chose “Caution” as my prompt to write a final paragraph.

STEP FOUR:  Write a description of this quality or emotion as if it is a living, breathing character.  What does it look like?  What color is it? What does it smell, taste or feel like?   What does it want to say and how does it listen and respond to you?

This entire writing process should move easily from one step to the next. My description of CAUTION as a character is only one example of many possibilities. Your last paragraph will be unique to you.

“Caution stays half-hidden behind the curtain.  She puts one toe out just in case The Big Bad Wolf is on the other side, so that she can withdraw quickly and not be seen.  Caution wears pastels that don’t over-shadow others.  She blends in so that she can choose a solo act. 

 “Caution had opportunities to shine, but others were louder and demanded all the fresh air, so caution covered her face and pretended to cough.  Caution eats familiar food instead of sampling the smorgasbord.  Occasionally when she does devour something new, she adds it to her expanding menu.  Caution backs out of things without doing her Nike Dance – “Just Do It!”  but later regrets it.  Maybe trying to be perfect is just too hard to ever get right.”

If this concept interests you, you may enjoy a little book filled with short descriptions and drawings of both positive and negative attributes that are perfect examples for this exercise.  The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler, published in 1988 by HarperPerennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers is both helpful and fun.

Try this simple exercise and see what you may learn.  You may be surprised, validated or challenged to change in some essential and meaningful way.


Susan Hendricks leads personal writing groups and workshops approved for CEU credits by the SC Social Work Examiners Board and is an instructor for the online Therapeutic Writing Institute. Read all of her Columbia Star columns at:

Posted in

Leave a Comment

Recent Publications


Enter your email address to subscribe and receive notifications right to your email.