I. What is Persona?
Have you ever tried to make a particular impression upon people? Such as when giving a presentation or meeting new people? Perhaps you tried to speak and act a little differently than you would if you weren’t trying to make any impression; in other words, you might have used your voice, appearance, and body language to present a particular personality to people. This personality, that you present to people, is a kind of persona (pronounced ‘per-SO-na’).
Persona is a Latin word for a type of mask that was worn by stage actors at that time, which represented their character. Nowadays, persona can refer to the characters in any dramatic or literary work. But it has another special meaning in literary studies, where it refers to the voice of a particular kind of character—the character who is also the narrator within a literary work written from the first-person point of view.
Finally, in psychology, a persona is the “mask” (the personality) that you present to the world, the role you play in public.
Simply, a persona is a personality.
The plural of persona is personae (pronounced ’per-SO-nigh’)
II. Examples of Personae
In terms of social / psychological personae, many politicians present the persona of being conscientious (caring and honest) and responsible. They want to be seen as caring about the people they represent, whether this is true or not.
For another example, the persona I use in front of the child I babysit is different from the one I use in front of my school-friends. Most people show a different persona when working than with friends.
In terms of literary personae, T.S. Elliot is well known for the unique personae of the narrators of some of his poems, such as the persona of J. Alfred Prufrock, who narrates the poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Another unique persona is the un-named femal narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” There is a good reason that we use the special word persona for these narrator-characters; we only know them through their own words and thoughts, so we only know the persona they are presenting to the reader.
And don’t forget that the word is also used to refer to the characters in a dramatic production; the first character listed in the dramatis personae for Shakespeare’s Hamlet is Claudius, the King of Denmark.
III. Types of Persona
There are not really “types” of persona, only the different meanings of persona; once again:
If you look at the beginning of any play, you will see the “dramatis personae,” the list of all of the characters, the personae. Novels also have dramatis personae, although they are usually not listed. Some novels might show you an illustration of a family tree. Every work of literature, dramatic, prosaic, or poetic has characters, or at least one—the narrator—at minimum. Every literary work has personae.
When an author writes a first-person narrator, he or she needs to adopt a particular “voice”—a verbal personality for that narrator. This is also a persona. But only when the narrator is a character—even if we don’t know their name. To be a persona, the narrator must simply have a personality and identity which is not supposed to be that of the actual author. We don’t use the word persona for the voice of the actual author.
c. Public (fake) personality
When you go out in public, you dress a certain way, talk a certain way, act a certain way. All of these behaviors change, depending upon whom you meet and what impression you want to make on them. These personalities are your public personae.
In addition, there are generic personae—personality types; we have specific ideas about how certain people should look and behave. A teacher should be like this . . . A doctor should be like this . . . A pirate is like this . . . These are also personae.
IV. The Importance of Using Personae
The importance of using persona has been discussed since ancient times. “Aristotle in the Poetics says that the poet should say very little in propria persona (in his own voice), as he is no imitator or poet when speaking from himself.” What this means is that in works of fiction (prosaic, poetic or dramatic) the author must put her own personality aside, and become a character—the narrator. This is because every word you write should be part of the art of your creation; there is no place for your real self in a piece of fiction; you should use the role of the narrator to further entertain and enlighten the reader.
Personae are also important because they are a part of how we interact with others in our lives. In front of your parents, you adopt one persona. In front of your friends, another. In front of your teachers, a third. These personas may be vastly different, or they may be similar, but they are all personas.
Using personae in your writing is important because characters must have unique personae, with different feelings and voices than you have; otherwise they would really all be you!
V. Examples of Persona in Literature
Example 1: Dramatic Literature (plays)
This is the list of Dramatis Personae for Shakespeare’s Romero and Juliet:
Montague, Capulet, heads of warring households
Romeo, son to Montague
Mercutio, kinsman to the prince, and friend to Romeo
Friar Laurence, Friar John, Franciscans
Lady Montague, wife to Montague
Lady Capulet, wife to Capulet
Juliet, daughter to Capulet
Citizens of Verona; Maskers, Guards, Watchmen, and Attendants
Example 2: Poetry
In his poem, Annabel Lee, Edgar Allan Poe uses a persona to tell his story. Poe wrote the poem, but he is not the “me” who is speaking in it. That “me” is another character, another voice.
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
Example 3: Prose
Tracy Chevalier writes historical fiction. These are fictional stories based upon historical events. In her novel, Girl with A Pearl Earring, Chevalier takes on the persona of a girl named Griet and writes the novel so that it seems as though Griet is narrating her own story:
My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well. Strangers would think I was calm. I did not cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes.
VI. Examples of Persona in Popular Culture
Look at most social groups, especially in High School; they are defined in terms of stereotypes, which have personas associated with them. Here is a list you might recognize: jocks, goths, nerds, punks, rebels, drama queens, and hippies. The list goes on. Of course, people aren’t really stereotypes; there are nerds that get bad grades and jocks who make art! But these stereotypes have personas associated with them that we all recognize and can even put on and off.
Performers almost always use personas. We can see this easily when looking at musicians. Many rappers use the “gangsta” persona, like Snoop Dogg or Dr. Dre. Gorillaz is a virtual band that uses a totally fictional persona, depicted through animation. Each member of the classic 1970’s band, The Village People, had a different persona: native American, soldier, biker, construction worker, policeman and cowboy.
Celebrities do, and to a certain extent, MUST adopt personas. If you go to a book or album signing for your favorite writer or performer, you want to meet the idealized version of this person. You are not there to hear about how normal they are, or how they have a headache or how tired they feel. You want to see the stage version. Celebrities are by definition personas. They are larger than life. They exist apart from reality.
You can also find examples of literary-like personas in television shows and movies, when a show is narrated by a character, such as in Mr. Robot. Or in shows that have a host. For example, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert have both become famous for their personae, because they host their non-fiction comedy shows in the roles of ultra-right-wing commentators, although their real political views are more left-wing.
VII. Related Terms
“The attitude toward the subject expressed in a work. Tone usually is understood as the author’s attitude but need not be identified with the author.”
The voice an author uses when writing, usually their own writing style or point of view.
Point of View
When you write, you can use three different points of view: first person (I), second person (you), or third person (he or she). Whichever point of view you use, the narrator has a persona, but since in the third-person point of view, the narrator is supposed to be the author, usually we only talk about persona for first-person narratives. However, even a third-person narrator can have a persona which is not that of the true author.