A prosopopoeia is a rhetorical device or figure of speech in which someone acts as or represents someone else who is absent or imaginary. The term includes but is not exclusive to personification. When a person uses prosopopoeia, she can provide a different perspective in an artistic way, thereby strengthening arguments or making speech or writing more memorable.
From the historical standpoint, prosopopoeia comes from two words in ancient Greek. Prosopon translates to face or person. Poiein means to make or to do. Thus, prosopopoeia literally means to make the face of someone else.
An example of this device is in the play of children. For example, if a little girl is playing "princess," she might say, "I am the most beautiful princess in the world! I will rule the land with my magic scepter!" The little girl is not a princess and has no land to rule, but she is acting as though she holds that title and authority. Prosopopoeia thus is a key component in make-believe and the theater.
Another way people use prosopopoeia in everyday life is to communicate what others have said or feel. Sometimes people do this in a humorous or mocking way, such as if they use a shaky, nasal-like voice to say "Eh, what, sonny? Let me turn my hearing aid on!" to imitate an old person. Similarly, a person might say, "You know, my mother always said..." and then try to imitate her mother's voice and mannerisms with whatever words follow. Saying "If so-and-so were alive...." is also an example of this figure of speech. People also use this technique to create mock debates to make a point, as Abraham Lincoln famously did in his "Cooper Union Address."
People equate prosopopoeia with personification, as well. In fact, a person may use the two terms synonymously even though prosopopoeia is not exclusive to personification. An example of personification and prosopopoeia is "The stars dance in the sky." Stars, as inanimate balls of gases, cannot dance, but by saying they do, a person can create a much different picture of what a star looks like and how it behaves. This technique is found even in major writings such as the Bible.
Even though an individual may use this rhetorical device to improve his speech, writing or authority, he must be careful not to overuse it. Too much prosopopoeia can make speech and writing appear forced and can disguise reality; a person must choose how much is appropriate given the context.