Personification – Giving human-like attributes to a non-human thing. If I say that prior to writing this, "the white screen of my word processor was smirking at me, sarcastically challenging me to complete an impossible task," I would be personifying my computer (and Microsoft Word). When you yell at your computer because it is not behaving the way you would like it to, you’re personifying it. When you read a book and find any non-human thing given human attributes, use this word; it makes teachers smile. Remember the old children’s movie Beethoven? How about Pixar’s Wall-E? Both use personification. They’re also both dandy movies.
Theme – The main idea of the book. Everything in the book, ideally, is to add to the theme. The author has written this book in such a way, structured the characters as such, and led you down this winding path of text all because of the theme.
For fun, let’s make sure you do not confuse theme with motif (teachers really love the word “motif"). A motif is a recurring idea, symbol, object (or anything else at all) in a book. In the Narnia series, the struggle between good and evil is the motif. (The theme is that good wins). By the way, the Narnia series is also an allegory. You see it is very easy to fit these in once you get the hang of them.
Symbol – Something that means something else. Hope you aren’t confused.
Just to make sure you are staying on the well-beaten path, though, do not confuse symbol and metaphor (which is easy to do at first). A symbol is a substitute for something else. A metaphor is a comparison, so that you can understand better.
The skull and crossbones is a symbol for poison. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, poison is both a motif and a metaphor to show how evil decays and infects the characters.
Irony – This word is used to point out that something is not what it seems. I’m going to take a minute with Irony. (And I promise not to mention a certain song that one woman wrote many years ago, but I will say: Fail!) There are three kinds of irony:
Verbal – 1. Saying something false that is true. 2. The speaker says something he fails to realize is true (but the audience knows), or he means something different from what he says.
Dramatic – The characters do not know what is going on or what the result of their actions will be, but the audience knows. You see this frequently in classic tragedies. In Sophocles’ character Oedipus says, “Your life is one long night so that you cannot / hurt me or any other who sees the light." (lines 422-423) in Oedipus Rex. You may know in advance that Oedipus is not far from going blind himself.
Cosmic – When an unknown force is behind the bad outcome. The idea that the gods are playing with our lives for their own entertainment.
For a more complete list of literary terms, see Haley Drucker’s list of literary terms here. Continue to the next page for more tips on using smart words in your writing.