|Who are You? The Art of Persona
|An Overview of "Character
Creation" Within the SCA and Other Re-Enactment or Role-playing Groups
- What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
- What do you use for toilet paper?
- Do you have servants, slaves, or do you do your own dishes?
- What kind of underwear do you wear?
|Persona development is a depth-analysis of
another human being. That a persona is typically fictional doesn't detract from it being
as three dimensional as you or I. Providing that depth and dimension enables us as
re-enactors, players, or dramatists, to get inside the headspace of our creations, and
breathe life into them. We can think about them in the same terms that we might
think about a family member, a friend, a co-worker.
of whether you are a newcomer to the SCA, a SCAdian lifer with an interest in doing school
demos, someone who does live-action role play, or someone who spends time on the stage,
you have an interest in creating a strong persona. Your intent is to create a complete
being, one who can withstand odd and unusual questions, and come back with answers that
fit that persona.
This leads a lot of people to ask, How do I go about developing
that much detail in my persona? Admittedly, there are a large number of
SCAdians who dont develop more than the rudiments of a persona perhaps just a
name and country of origin, sometimes not even that much. The process of developing a
persona, however, often starts from such simple groundwork.
For those with an interest in finer detail in their personas, there
are a number of areas that you can research in order to expand personal histories.
|Start with the Basics
|The first step in defining a persona is
identifying who you are, when you are, and where you are, or where you are from.
Typically, in the SCA, this information is the minimum we all provide by way of
introducing ourselves. We need a name, and a place to match it (or a really good
justification for an Irish-Gaelic name in the court of an Italian Renaissance Duke), and a
general sense of your personal era. Some people may never get past the Hi,
Im Guf, and Im a Viking stage, and thats okay, too. But for
more depth and scope, consider answers to the following set of questions:
- Who are you?
- What age are you?
- What is your name? Do you have a nickname, a patronymic, or clan name?
- What are your parents names? Do you use your parents names
in your own?
- Are they alive or dead?
- Do you have any brothers, sisters, or children? What are their names?
- Are you single, married, widowed, separated?
|These questions provide the
foundation for a family history. From here, you can start to widen the scope
of the picture you are creating:
- Where are you?
- What do you call your land, your village or town, your part of the
- What do other people call it?
- Have you ever traveled somewhere else? Where? How far was it, and how
long did it take you to get there?
- What kind of structure do you live in? Is it in a village, town, city,
- How many people live there? Are they related to you?
|Often through history, locals knew their
area as something different from what outsiders knew it as, perhaps by a nickname. The
sort of residence you place your persona in provides a lot of clues into your personal
wealth and stature, as well as your place in a very localized hierarchy.
- When are you?
- How do you record dates?
- What holidays do you celebrate?
- Who is the current reigning royalty in your area, and what
kind of interaction do you have with them?
- What major events (natural or manmade) have occurred in your lifetime?
|Your placement in the historical timeline dictates
everything from how you might dress, to what you live in, to the sorts of names and titles
you might possess. There are a number of general periods within the SCA context that might
help steer your choice: Barbaric times (commonly called the Dark Ages, after the fall of
Rome in the West), the Byzantine and Frankish Empires, The Norman Conquest and the Gothic
period, the era of the first Black Plague (14th Century), the Italian and German
Renaissance, the Tudor and Elizabethan eras, the Restoration (which leads up to the time
of Cavalier King Charles in England in the early 1600s). Bear in mind these time
periods are generalities only each era has many sub eras, marked out by
wars, reigns, advances in art or science.
More questions defining who, where, and when you are might include:
- When are you?
- What time is it? How do you keep the time?
- How is your day divided?
- What do you eat?
- What did you have for breakfast? Lunch?
- How do you store food, or do you?
- Where do you buy food, and how do you pay?
- Do you have any hobbies?
- What does your house look like?
- What are you?
- What do you do for a living?
- What kinds of tasks does that entail?
- What kind of education do you have?
- If you have a trade, how did you learn it?
- Do you get time off? For what reasons?
- What do you do in your free time? How many hours a day do you work?
- How many children do you have?
- What are their names?
|Personal Life, Home &
|Now we look at specifics of your
personal history. Children are fascinated by the details of the personas
daily life, if those details appear convincing to the presenter. They want to know
everything about you. To convince them, you have to know everything, too!
One of the key visual factors in persona development is dress.What kind of clothes do you
wear? What accessories are proper for you? SCAdians in particular can typically answer
both questions, but often, little details are overlooked, and its the little details
that make the big picture presentation work, and often have the biggest
impact. Even basic research can often ferret out the most interesting information on what
sorts of accoutrements will work for your persona.
Frequently, you will find that styles of dress also serves as a deciding factor in what
kinds of activities your persona engages in. While this is often a more critical factor
for women than for me, it bears consideration on both sides. Women arent likely to
play racquetball in a tight corset. Huntsmen arent likely to wear tight hose and
lacy Renaissance placket sleeves.
- What sorts of past-times are available to people of your station, in your area and era?
- Do these hobbies require any sorts of specialized equipment?
- Can you cite examples?
- How do you acquire this equipment?
- How did you learn this activity?
- Does everyone in your family do this?
- Is it limited to particular ages, society levels, or genders?
|Perhaps looking at hobbies is putting the
cart before the horse, but often, children want to know what games you play before they
ask what you do for a living its certainly a question of audience priorities
In the SCA, unless you choose otherwise, you are assumed to be of noble birth, though the
Royalty as recognition of merit grants rank and title in the SCA, rather than acquired by
heritage and inheritance. Many personas develop as tradesmen, crafters, and artisans,
developing a particular area of skill, and acquiring rank and title through recognition of
that skill. In this respect, the SCA seems to foster an unspoken recognition of a
Guild approach. Some questions in this area:
- Are you noble, or are you a tradesperson?
- If noble, do you rely on your rank for wealth, or do you perform some
duty (ambassador, clerk, military posting) to guarantee income?
- What is your rank in noble society?
- If in the trades, are you practicing as an independent, or part of a
Guild? What is your ranking within the Guild, and what work can you produce to justify
- How do you rank your actual skills in your selected trade or craft?
(apprentice level, journeyman, master)
|There are often some weird and wonderful
stories concocted within the SCA to explain how a married Norman woman has learned the
erotic forms of Middle Eastern dance, for example J. It is also common to develop a
demo or public persona that is different from your SCA persona, so long as you dont
confuse the details in a demo! For instance, my noble Lancastrian demo persona is
married to an ambassadorial clerk, with four living children and three dead ones.
When I do a demo with a Norse female persona, I invent on the fly an entire family
and homestead history. In both cases, I have enough stuff to strengthen
either presentation; both in terms of my clothing and in terms of artifacts I bring for
show & tell.
Artifacts are a good support for persona
development, especially for new people just setting out down this path. There are lots of
young men out there who bought huge shiny swords even before they had proper clothes to
wear, and proceeded to model persona development around the sword. Usually we advise
that once you have an idea of where you want your persona to go (development-wise), start
acquiring a few suitable items for your period, location, and station. Learn what
you can about these items, how they were produced, how they came into your possession, and
youve got a good starting point for general cultural references.
|Two more areas of interest are your personas
family, and the buildings you live in.
- Do you live in a castle?
- A fortified tower? A hill fort? Wattle and daub hut? Crenellated manor
house? Townhouse? Venetian palazzo?
- How many rooms in your home?
- How is it heated?
- Where do you keep livestock animals?
- Do you have pets? Where do you keep them?
|Sometimes a basic idea of the kinds of
furniture you would have also comes in handy, from ornate Tudor and Renaissance gilded
chairs to fur-covered sea chests of the Norsemen, it never hurts to know what you sit your
backside down on when you sit down to eat!
- Do you have a big family or a small one?
- Are you married? How old were you when you married?
- How many times have you been married?
- Are you the head of your household, or where are you in the hierarchy?
- Are you one of the children, do you have children?
- What do most of the deaths in your family occur from?
- What do the various members of your family do?
|It may help to keep cheat sheets
of relevant data, until you are familiar enough with the persona to carry it off in your
head alone. For years, I kept such a sheet for review before every demo, to remind
myself of my childrens names, and which ones were alive, and which ones dead. (To
this day, Im still not entirely sure Ragnarr, for example, knows the names of all
his brothers, nor am I certain they stay the same from one demo to the next J.)
- What do you think of?
- Do you believe in God?
- Do you like your King?
- Do you think slavery is wrong?
|Now we take a look at some of the more
cerebral aspects of persona development: the development of personal philosophies.
This encompasses such boggy ground as personal religion and politics, and the admittedly
fuzzy line between persona beliefs and those of the modern person playing
Start with some basic questions regarding your
- Do you live in a Christian era and area?
- If you are Christian, what denomination? (Catholic, Anglican,
- If you are not Christian, what religion are you?
- If not Christian, what deities do you worship? Have you been exposed to
- What rites of worship do you practice? What, if any, formal rites
exist for your religion?
- Can you practice these openly where you are now?
- Do you wear or bear any external symbols of your faith? (cross, rosary,
- Does your faith invite any sort of pilgrimages to places of
special religious significance?
- Have you ever taken one?
- Is there any kind of organized hierarchy within your faith?
- How does one become involved in that hierarchy?
|Many cultural beliefs, even within the SCAs
medieval period, vary wildly. In the realm of the LARP system, belief systems wander out
into the realms of fantastic, but often fairly clearly defined and well developed.
Because religion in any form has such an impact on any cultures expected and
acceptable codes of ethics, behaviours, morality, it is an area of study ignored at your
own risk. In many cultures, everything from festivals to what you can eat on certain
days is dictated by the prevailing religion, your personal religion, or compromises
between the two (if different, as with Jews living in Christian Europe in the Middle
For instance, devout Christians in the Middle Ages had a
saints day for almost every day of the year. Often, a childs
birthday was of less importance than his saints day, in which both the child and the
saint names as his/her protector were honoured. The Church dictated hairstyles and
clothing fashions for much of the Christian Middle Ages, and royal sumptuary laws were
often based (to some extent) in these church-based restrictions. In many cases, the Church
was exempt from secular sumptuary laws, but clerical orders had their own equally rigorous
and restrictive sumptuary laws.
Religious pilgrimages were one of the most widely condoned form of
social travel throughout the height of the medieval era, in which both men and
women were free to travel from one religious site to another. What little news or
knowledge a persona has of the world might come from such a trip, along with an excuse to
possess interesting language skills or articles not normally found in the home area.
The news of the world issue leads to the next area of
persona philosophy personal politics, Outside the obvious historically noted wars
of your chosen time period, here are some other issues to ponder:
- Has there been any strife in your country or close to your lands during
your life, your fathers life, your grandfathers life?
- What side of the strife are you on?
- What side has your family traditionally sided with?
- What might cause you to change sides?
- Have you or has your family ever taken part in any sort of political
- Does your family maintain any kind of clan warfare of
family alliances with other families, clans, or political factions?
- Are you pledged in support of any ruling or rule-hopeful nobility?
- Have you or any of your family ever held a ruling position
in the area where you live (reeve, mayor, sheriff)?
- How did you achieve that position?
- Was it by appointment or electoral process?
- Did you campaign? Who could vote?
- To whom do you owe personal allegiance?
- To whom does you family owe allegiance?
|Also consider these questions, as they
reflect the time in which you have chosen to set your persona, and the politics by which
you would be living:
- Are there any particular races, social classes, or religions to which
you are not allowed to speak, or prefer not to speak or have social dealing with?
- Would you still conduct business with any of the above?
- Are there any of the above against which you would historically hold a
social prejudice? (For example, through most of the High Middle Ages, the Jews were
shunned as social pariahs, as they were frequently wealthy and definitely non-Christian)
- Is there any way of moving between social classes in your
time (marriage, political advancement, and mercantile wealth)? Have you any urge to do
that, and how would you accomplish that?
|Many cultures are based on a very strong
extended-family/clan concept, in which people family and those married into the
family with similar loyalties constitute the vast majority of an individuals
world. Allegiance is owed FIRST to the clan, THEN to anyone outside the clan
(including reigning monarchs). Many of these cultures are also less focused on the
differences between the social classes, placing more importance on winning ones
wealth and arranging a bountiful and profitable marriage.
note: the difference between kin and clan, to the best of my
knowledge, is that kin refers to a relative of the immediate or direct
bloodline, while clan or clansman refers to anyone of the clan, be
they of direct bloodline, or not of the blood at all. One can be clan
without being kin, but one cant be kin without being clan
at least, not without a good fight J.)
Many cultures are also hereditary in nature, where if your family didnt
do it for generations before you, chances are you wont either. Marrying above
or below ones station did happen, but was generally frowned on if not actively
discouraged. Only in the very close-to-the-throne circles of nobility was it a
regular practice to acquire new titles usually at the expense of the head currently
claiming that right.
Often these clan or familial relationships dictate who you can
associate with, who you can and cant marry, who you can trade and do business with,
and so on. Because of the far-reaching effects of personal politics, its often
a good idea to be very well aware of both the political climate of your chose
time/location, as well as your personas (and familial) position on those politics.
|Presenting Your Persona
- Do you have a coat of arms?
- What kind of furniture do you sit on?
- What do you wear in court?
- How did you get here today?
|We have finally reached the moment of truth.
You have spent time and energy creating a persona in some detail, and your attention turns
to the question, Yeah, but now what do I DO with it??
The first issue to look at is the contentious problem of reconciling all your
diverse interests within a single persona. Something that is both the bane and the
beauty of the SCA, for instance, is that there is So Much To Do. Your persona may
head in one direction, but you have or develop interests which may lead in another
like the early-period Irish sailor who suddenly discovers a love of Middle Eastern hand
drumming, or the Restoration lady who discovers a passion for the forge and anvil and
Japanese kite flying.
- What are YOUR personal interests, within the scope of the
- How many of them are outside the scope of your personas time
period or world knowledge?
- What would your personas interests be in period?
- Is there any overlap?
- How many of those personal interests can be justified within your
persona by means of a believable story?
|Concocting a story to explain how a Scottish
piper winds up his Lairds emissary to a Japanese court (for example) is one way of
justifying what seem to be conflicting interests. After all, an anachronism
is something that is out of place in time. These stories are the most common means of
explaining irregularities in persona activities within the SCA. Another approach is
to simply take these interests for what they are, and not bother to justify them within
the context of the persona. A third approach involves the creation of another
For many with conflicting interests, the majority of
responses fall into the second or third categories. For example, a Norse persona
with a keen interest in fencing might decide not to change persona, but simply to acquire
the right garments for the task, while remaining true to the core persona at all other
Many people treat the SCA as a geographical location, exchanging time
for physical distance. This enables an Elizabethan gentleman, for example, to travel
to the Laurel Kingdoms and pass time at an event drinking with a Norman knight, a 14th
Century Venetian spice merchant, and a lowly apanese house cook. This melting pot
also provides ample opportunity for individual personae to encounter and pick up interests
not native to their own lives, and also enables them to offer homage to kings and barons
not their own.
Treating the SCA as a separate geographical entity makes it easier on
those who have to deal with the public while in persona. For example,
school children at demos often ask How We Got Here. My standard response is, Well, I
sailed from Dover some 3 1/2 weeks ago, and I came across country from the lake port by
your local conveyances. My persona is fascinated by all the local marvels of
modern south-western Ontario, but no more than she would be by all the marvels to witness
in 15th C Vienna, or Padua, or Addis Ababa.
So, once you start to wrap your head around the idea of using the SCA
as a fixed locale on the map, consider these questions:
- Does your persona view the Laurel Kingdoms as a geographical entity, or
do you consider yourself to be at home in your own local, overlooking the variances in
other personas dress and habits?
- Do you prefer to think that your personas homeland is simply
being invaded by other cultures?
- Do you offer homage to any local (SCA) rulers?
- Are there any restrictions in your persona that would prevent you from
- What is an event to you? A day at court? A town
market day? A clan celebration?
- What do you enjoy about vents? What do you not enjoy?
- What does your persona enjoy, or not enjoy?
- What do you AND your persona require at events to both be comfortable
and display status?
|Not everyone can afford a grand sort of
display, granted, especially not right off the starting block. But there are simple
ways of accomplishing that sense of presentation or presence, and it often
starts with heraldry, or some other recognizable visible symbol.
- Do you have a coat of arms?
- Do you have personal/family/clan/household heraldry (including clan
tartans) you can wear or display?
- How would it be appropriate to display that?
- For early period personas, is there some symbol you use which
represents you? Can you put any of that symbology on a garment, on a box or banner, on
- What would your persona normally travel with, when visiting or going on
extended trips? (Think both in terms of accessories and in terms of bigger items, like
- Would you carry trunks, benches, chairs for comfort?
- Would you use anything to cover them (a good place to display your
- How much gear can you afford to carry in your mundane vehicle? (This is
often a limiting factor for many)
|A small sturdy trunk or chest makes for both
practical seating and storage. Collapsible or folding chairs can be covered with
fabric to provide a simple and comfortable place to sit, and are easy to transport.
Many designs exist for simple period chairs and tables if you want to build your
own, or you can cruise second-hand shops for treasure finds.
advantage to travelling with stuff is that you can claim an area of the hall
as your own, and depending on the quality of your setup, it adds a great deal to the
atmosphere of the event. It may be as simple as a Norseman travelling with a couple
of sea-chests covered in sheepskins, or it could be a Lancastrian lady travelling with
most of her household goods folding screen and fabric, folding chairs and cushions,
folding table, embroidery stand and frame, jugs and pottery tableware, rugs for the floor
hmm, that all sounds very familiar
While all of this began as an exercise to help SCA demo staff create
mostly-unshakeable personas, the underlying ideas for anyone trying to create a fully
developed identity. The bottom line, as I have said in many places, is that the
details do count. Remember that each element you add contributes to the overall effect and
strength of your persona. Whether you travel in grandiose style or simplified
comfort, in Tudor glitz or peasant rags, all these questions will guide you in the act of
creating a persona every bit as detailed as you are. I warn you now that each
question will lead to dozens more.
From simple groundwork comes what can be as simple or as complicated
as you allow it to be. A little research goes a long way, and in the end, you will
have created a whole new person that you can present for the enjoyment and benefit of all.
|Lady Arnora Dunestan
(AoA, OW, OoB)
Copyright March 2000, Karen B. Murphy