Persona is a great example—perhaps the great example–of software that can increase the creativity of anyone writing about people. I say ‘writing about people’ rather than ‘writing characters’ because nonfiction writers who use people in their writing benefit as much as a fiction writer.
My background is in French Literature, so when I think of characters, I think of poor Honoré de Balzac. This man wrote a magnum opus called La comédie humaine, a series of 91 works that gives us a remarkably detailed, almost anthropological look at life during and after the 1815 fall of Napoléon Bonaparte. And yes, I said 91 works, mostly novels, whose characters came and went throughout the entire work.
Balzac had so many characters to manage that he did two rather unusual things to keep them straight in his mind. First, for each of his fictional families, he created a crest, then collected the hundreds of crests into an Armorial. If you visit his house in Paris (now a musée) you can buy a copy of this Armorial, which, when unfolded, extends to well over six feet in length. And this is just for his characters who lived in Paris. There’s another for those who peppered the French country landscape.
While visiting his house, you also see rows and rows of dolls sitting on shelves that extend around the entire circumference of his writing room. Balzac, wearing a white linen monk’s robe and downing quarts of extremely strong coffee, would use these dolls as memory aids. After all, there are more than 2000 characters in La Comedie Humaine. Just listing the characters is a book in itself (really — two Frenchmen completed a Repertory of Balzac’s work, and it was the size of a novel.
Imagine the help that Persona would have been to him. He was in a continual write-revise-submit cycle, so hundreds of characters could be actively involved in his day-to-day writing. Persona could obviate the need for a room full of dolls, since names, physical characteristics, body type, ethnicity, and lots else, are default information fields for every Persona character. In addition, backgrounds, hobbies, occupations, and, something that would have seemed a miracle to Balzac, Character Connections, are all organized for each character. And since old habits die hard, Persona solves more of the Balzac problem by allowing a photo for each character. The photo can be an actual person, but a picture of a doll works just as well.
Persona is meant to be used from the beginning, when characters are created. There are 16 archetypes each for men and women. As your conception of the character develops, Persona keeps track of the details. The character can morph and change as you plan your work, and Persona keeps track of every detail.
My use of the software shows that it allows plenty of degrees of freedom for a writer to fully specify a character. Some details aren’t type-anything-you-want-style blanks, but rather are drop-down lists for the author to pick from. And since there are so many possibilities for the numerous character details, the right third of the software window is devoted to detailed explanations of each choice. For example, you may create a character whose archetype (chosen from a list) is a Standard Bearer. Persona allows for two kinds of standard bearers: an Altruist and a Concerned Citizen (which are chosen from a list). It is not obvious to the beginning user of the software what these terms mean. And they mean a lot. Hence, the large amount of space assigned to describing the choices. You know what you are making.
Long-time users of Persona may see the perpetual sight of these explanations as a problem. A welding on of training wheels. It's a valid point, but I have been using the software for a good while, and still appreciate the descriptions.
Earlier, I said that a non-fiction writer could use Persona as much as the fiction writer could. As an example, I’m just looking up to my television, which is showing a documentary on Barney Frank. The documentarians used lots of congressmen, senators, party leaders, constituents, and others. Each person is in the documentary for a reason. The film certainly has a point of view, and the characters are interviewed and used to progress the documentation of Barney Frank’s life. There are a few dozen people, and their characteristics matter. You use professional politicians to make some points, concerned citizens to make others. Persona fits right into the toolbox of the filmmaker who has to keep up with this cohort of people.
As with other database-like software, all of the characteristics are sortable and group able. Macintosh owners will be familiar with Smart Folders from using email and iTunes. Essentially, a Smart folder is a container for all the characters who meet certain criteria. So you can look at all your female villains. Or altruistic congressmen. Finding characters, keeping score of the character types in your population, gaining an instant census of them is literally two clicks away.
If you are a person who relies on building characters as part of their living, Persona is for you. Everything about your creations is available, sortable, and mutable. When using Persona, your characters can’t hide from you, so you won’t have a character change eye color in the middle of your work.