Review: Persona is limited, values stereotypes over substance
Creating compelling characters for a work of fiction isn’t an easy undertaking: They have to be recognizable as people and avoid the traps of cliché. It’s easy to see how a writer would welcome a tool like Mariner Software’s Persona, which aims to help make such a task easier. Unfortunately, while I had high hopes for the app, its aim goes far wide of the mark, turning a creative exercise into a rote one, fraught with problems.
At its root, Persona is a sort of database for characters. The program divides its functions into three toolbar tabs: Create, where you make your characters; Interact, which tells you how different characters interact; and Learn, which consists of information about the types of characters you can create.
Under the Create section, you make an entry for each character, much as you might enter a person’s information in Contacts. You fill in a character’s name, choose an archetype (as well as a style of that archetype), and other biographical information: age, height, weight, sex, eye color, hair color, occupation, hobbies, background, etc. You can even drag in a picture if you have one handy, or add tags that will then autocomplete in other records. Characters can be organized into groups, or even Smart Groups that you create by filtering for certain criteria. (Handy, I suppose, if you want to know who all the blue-eyed, brown-haired characters in a story are.)
There’s a certain amount of utility here. As a writer, it can definitely be challenging to recall each detail of a particular character—especially a minor one—and believe me, if you accidentally change a character’s eye color from green to blue halfway through the book, someone’s going to notice. But while that capability is valuable, it can be accomplished by any number of other tools from a simple database created using a program like Bento, to a spreadsheet, or a plain old text file.
Persona attempts to up the ante on its offering by tying in the idea of archetypes. The idea that people—and thus, characters—fall into certain archetypes has been put forth by no less than Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and W.B. Yeats, among others. It’s this idea of fundamental, essential types of characters that drives Persona, and yet it’s woefully misguided.
The app offers 32 archetypes, divided into heroes, heroines, villains, and villainesses. You can pick one for your character, and then generally choose from two different subtypes, called styles. For example, the Action Figure might be a Voyager or a Cage Fighter, while the Evil Queen offers the Diva or Disciplinarian styles.
It’s hard to know where to start with the misapprehensions of these archetypes, which don’t conform to any known literary theories of which I’m aware. The problem is that archetypes and clichés are two sides of the same coin, and Persona’s options seem to veer much more towards the latter than the former. It’s unclear to me who wrote these descriptions, but there’s a problem of authority: Why should I trust this unnamed, unknown source?
It’s also unclear to me why the archetypes need to be divided by gender—while I can understand why Distracted Mother might be a type of villainess, why must a Misguided Visionary be a presumptively male villain?
The utility of the archetypes themselves are limited at best. Each is described in a sidebar in the Create character, as well as again in the Learn tab. Styles are broken out, and there are lists of qualities, flaws, background suggestions, and potential occupations. Once you assign an archetype to a character, you’re told which other archetypes are similar, synonymous, complementary, and inverted, but while those appear as tokens, you can’t click on them or do anything with them.
There are also a list of examples pulled from popular fiction, but these are sometimes more head-scratching than anything else: Indiana Jones and Tony Stark are listed under the Expert category…but I’d qualify them both as Action Figures, too. Sometimes examples are only listed—other times they get lengthy paragraphs explaining why they purportedly fit a particular character type.
The Learn section also includes diagrams for each of the various sets of archetypes, showing—presumably—which are complementary and which are opposed. But the whole arrangement seems odd, and less than useful. The app seeks to draw some comparisons to a color wheel, with the idea of complementary colors. But some of the comparisons don’t make logical sense: I fail to see how can the Playboy be synonymous with both the Teammate and the Rotten Friend? It seems largely arbitrary.
The Interact tab, where Persona clearly hopes you’ll derive much of the program’s utility, has the same issue of authority. It discusses how various archetypes clash, mesh, and change. My big problem here is that the information is so very static. You could easily read these sections and believe that there’s only one way for two archetypes to interact. And yet the very basis of interesting characters is that even if they draw from archetypes, they don’t always act exactly along those lines. Otherwise you end up with a story that’s the equivalent of a paint-by-numbers drawing, and that’s not very interesting.
As if all of that were not enough, Persona feels like a program that isn’t ready for the light of day. The extensive text is rife with misspellings, typos, and formatting errors. (One particular sigh-inducing mistake referred to the woman who helped Theseus survive the labyrinth as “Adriane.”) All of these factors just reinforce my reluctance to trust any content this app has to offer.
The linen background on the main window is pulled from Apple’s own textures and, combined with the shabby formatting, gives the entire app an appearance of being unfinished. The tag field in the record doesn’t correctly wrap entries to its width, so they start to exceed the size of the box if you enter more than a couple.
There’s a Names Database, which is a nice touch, but it’s undercut by its somewhat bizarre attribution of names (“Arthur” is notable because it’s a hurricane name; “Decatur” is listed under Greek Mythology, but linked to a 19th-century naval hero), as well as the lackluster Lookup Name Meaning button (it just opens your web browser with a Google search for “[name] name meaning”).
At best, Persona is a set of training wheels for writers looking to cut their teeth, but you can find much better sources of information on archetypes and writing elsewhere online or at your local library. Those who already have some experience may appreciate the character logging features, but since there’s no way to get information out of the app, you might regret locking yourself in to a proprietary program.
Moreover, at $50, Persona strikes me as simply too expensive for its limited functionality. It’s a lot to pay for an app that, if all goes well, you will outgrow pretty quickly.