AWP is Association of Writers and Writing Programs, with the conference open to faculty, students, and writers (independent of a college) held in San Antonio this year. So here's some cool new stuff on the relationship between persona (typically discussed in regards to creative nonfiction) and character.
[As background, I have both an MFA (fiction) and an MA (creative nonfiction) in creative writing]
When I went through my MA, I started with a personal essay class because my mentor needed one more student for a particular class to go. I fell in love with the genre and proceeded to take every class I could. In the personal essay class, we studied Dinty Moore's book on the topic. In my memoir class, we studied Sue Williams Silverman's Finding Innocence and Experience: Voices in Memoir. The first personal essay I polished and submitted won a contest and a Pushcart nomination. Jill Christman was the judge.
So, imagine walking into a workshop where all 3 of these writers were presenting. It was surreal, and wonderful, and educational. :)
Persona isn't something we talk about in fiction, because we know the characters are fiction. There's no need for a persona, but in CNF, the writer is on the page, yet it's not fully the writer. It's a persona. It's a piece of self without the whole being.
Dinty Moore, during the presentation, said that persona is the embodiment of self but tidied up. “Constructed of the truth but not fully the truth,” creating a more consistent character than the self. "Persona is a consistent and engaging personality on the page." Persona is a glimpse of who we are. We dial it up, emphasize, and stretch" without embellishing or misleading.
[the same can also be said of plot in CNF... Books have a consistent plot, but real life does not.]
Jill Christman clarified more: "The I is a mark on the page. It is not you on the page. You can try to make it a version of you, but your 3-dimensional self is a multitude of I’s. The persona will not contain all your selves."
Ok, so how can we use this information in fiction? On the face, there is no tie, because we're not writing about flesh-and-blood people, but when we look deeper, persona ties directly to characterization. It's very easy to write flat characters, those one-dimensional beings who are there to serve the needs of the writer and the plot, but easy doesn't equate to good. In this case, a flat character annoys or bores the reader, so the same elements in selecting character traits also applies to fiction.
If you want a round character, you have to demonstrate their roundness. You need to find those ticks and traits that you want to demonstrate. The character must remain consistent (a thief doesn't suddenly become a priest... at least without motivation/change), but the character should show some of their different traits when encountering different situations.
Here's an example I use with my undergrads. You use a different voice on Facebook (where grandma can see it) than you do in Snapchat where it's just your friends. You know, often intuitively, what type of posts you can get away with on the different social media platforms.
The same is true of persona. As the writer, you can adjust the character's behaviors based on who is around, so a character in a thriller might act one way with a client, another with a coworker, and yet put on a different persona when they're dealing with criminals (or suspects). Give your characters some depth, some roundness, by pulling out true-to-life traits and personas.
If you're struggling with a character, consider what some of his/her traits and personas might be and how they would manifest within the story. If you don't like the character, or feel they're flat, consider giving them different personas that makes more sense for the story.
In the end, fictional characters will never be wholly human, wholly realistic, but we can give them multiple dimensions so they're interesting and full. How can you use persona in your work?
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.