Definition of Persona

A persona is a character or figurative mask that an actor, writer, or singer takes on in order to perform. Originally a technique just for theater, the concept was popularized in literature by the poets Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Both men had a few named personae through whom they wrote famous poems. When a writer uses a persona through which to create a work of literature, it is understood that the resulting work takes on the traits of the poet him or herself and the different lens that the persona brings to the work.

The word persona was originally Latin, though there is some disagreement about the etymology of the word. The word originally referred to a real mask worn in theater. It probably either came from the Etruscan word phersu for the same concept, or from the Latin term per-sonare, which meant “sounding through.” In either case, there is a strong connection between the concept of persona and using a different character through which to experience the world.

Difference Between Persona, Alter Ego, Stage Name, and Pen Name

The definition of persona is very similar to other concepts such as alter ego, stage name, and pen name. However, they are all subtly different, though there can be overlaps between them. A stage name and pen name are simply different names that an artist takes on to either disguise their identity or gives themselves a more exciting or memorable way for people to remember them. Examples of pen names are Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens), J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith (Joanne Rowling), George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), and Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler). Examples of stages names are Madonna, Sting, The Edge, Lady Gaga, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Manson, and Bob Dylan.

An alter ego is believed to be a second self existing in the same body. Thus, behaving as an alter ego is not necessarily seen as a voluntary choice, unlike taking on a persona. Sometimes the term alter ego is applied to a character that an author creates in a work of fiction who has the thoughts and experiences of the author. Again, while this is similar to a persona, the alter ego represents the real thoughts and emotions of the author, while a persona gives an author a way to explore another character’s thoughts and feelings as if the author were really that person.

Common Examples of Persona

Some famous people have been known to have different personas which they perform as (different than a stage name, because the persona is a different character from themselves). Most recently, the hip hop and pop artist Nicki Minaj has identified different personas in her songs, such as as “Harajuku Barbie” and “Roman.”

Here are other famous people who have performed as different personas:

Significance of Persona in Literature

The potential of writing through a persona opens up many possibilities for an author. All writers to some extent create and interpret the experiences of characters who are not themselves. Using a persona, however, takes this one step further, much as Method acting requires an actor to completely get inside the head of a character to understand why he or she would act a certain way. An author may write through the persona of a different character to understand parallels between their two world views, work through certain poetic problems, or simply free himself or herself from the limitations of his or her own life experiences. Using a persona requires a high level of compassion and empathy on the part of the author to legitimately explore a situation through a lens not his or her own.

Examples of Persona in Literature

Example #1

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

(“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot)

J. Alfred Prufrock is one of T. S. Eliot’s most famous personae. In this persona example, Eliot creates a dramatic interior of a man who feels isolated and thwarted. While many critics at the time found it insignificant and the epiphanies therein trivial, others found the concept to be thoroughly modern. The technique of writing through a persona had been out of fashion since the Medieval ages, when it had been abandoned. Writing in the early 1900s, Eliot saw the immense possibilities available in writing through a persona. He used persona to distance himself from aspects of modern life that he disliked.

Example #2

Shades of Callimachus, Coan ghosts of Philetas
It is in your grove I would walk,
I who come first from the clear font
Bringing the Grecian orgies into Italy,
and the dance into Italy.
Who hath taught you so subtle a measure,
in what hall have you heard it;
What foot beat out your time-bar,
what water has mellowed your whistles?

(“Homage to Sextus Propertius” by Ezra Pound)

Ezra Pound was a mentor figure to T. S. Eliot, and was the editor for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He, too, wanted to explore certain themes through the possibility of a lens of another character’s experiences, and so adopted some examples of persona for his works of literature. Most of the personas he used were real-life poets, such as Sextus Propertius, a Latin elegiac poet who lived during the 1st century BC. Ezra Pound used the persona of Sextus Propertius to use Propertius’s in homage to the poet.

Example #3

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
10 Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

(“Canto I” from Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov)

Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant novel Pale Fire is about the author of a 999-line poem, John Shade. The novel itself is presented as a forward to the poem by Shade’s neighbor Charles Kinbote, and includes the poem itself. This is a meta-textual example of persona in which Nabokov has of course written every part of the novel, yet presents himself as different characters. The above excerpt is the beginning of the 999-line poem, which Nabokov wrote as though he were the character John Shade. Much of the novel deals with truth and fiction, and Nabokov’s use of persona blurs the lines between these in a fascinating way.