Tropes: Writing Personas

[Content Note: Spoilers for Persona Revelations, Disabilities and Hospitalization]

Greetings, you readers of the future! It's the day after Christmas as I write this and I'm still on my Christmas Break Video Game kick, and in light of the many interesting questions we've had in the last month or so about characterization based on the characters of Eustace Scrubb, King Caspian, and Aunt Alberta, I figured it was time to have another one of those How To Do Nuance As An Author posts. This time with 100% more Persona.

(For the record: I'm going to be confining myself to mostly to Persona Revelations, with some side references to Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment, and I'll be sticking with the English localized names because that's what I'm most used to. On the other hand, I'll be using the Japanese character art because that's what is readily available online. We will not be talking about the localization for Mark outside of a very long footnote.* If you're a translation purist, copy my text into Wordpad and do a find-and-replace search on the names before reading -- I won't mind. Also note, if you really want to play the game after my gushing, you can pick up a PSP remake for fairly cheap.)

So let's talk about writing for a moment. For many of us, we do not want to write (or read) perfect characters. Perfect characters are usually pretty boring. Flaws and imperfections are more often than not where the interesting things occur, and of course outright horribleness in various forms can make for great drama. At the same time, we don't want to go overboard into ridiculous strawman territory like Horrible Feminist Vegetarian Non-Smoker Aunt Alberta because (a) that is also very boring because flat-one-dimensional characters almost always are, and (b) it is additionally pretty damned insulting to all the other feminist vegetarian non-smoking aunts and it's not usually a great idea to piss off your readership.

But how do we write interesting unusual characters with flaws ranging from Realistic Characterization to Major Plot Problem without ending up with text that reads like a one-dimensional anvilicious tract on the evils of whatever it is you're attempting to address? And additionally doesn't come off like a cheery After School Special where everyone learns a Very Important Lesson and then is happy forever afterwards? WELL, I WILL TELL YOU. Or, more specifically, the makers of the Persona games will tell us.

First, some backstory. I love Persona Revelations. It was the first game I bought for the Sony Playstation, and indeed I bought the system entirely because of the game. I loved it, just like I knew I would, because that was back in the days when Game Informer actually informed you about games instead of being a 200-page advertisement for whatever was coming out next month. The game was deep, subtle, and psychological, and -- for the first time ever for me -- departed from the usual fantastical world of plumbers and cat-eared girls to show me a world just like mine where protagonists just like me fought demons and saved the day. There are not the words to describe how epic that was.

So for those of you who missed out on this game, here's a quick summary:

You are an ordinary high school kid. (Ostensibly male, but your protagonist is both androgynous and silent, so there's not much in the way of stopping you from mentally adjusting hir gender in your head-canon and assuming that the lightly-implied in-game romances are f/f pairings.) While visiting a classmate in the hospital, an earthquake rocks the town and leaves the world strangely changed, both geographically and in the sense that there are now demons swarming around town seeking to devour you.

Fortunately, you and your pack of friends have been granted magical powers which are called "personas" because they stem from the multitude of personalities that everyone has within them. (For example: you might be extroverted at school, but introverted at home. You might be cheerful and outgoing around your boyfriend, but serious and studious around your best friend. Etc.) So you do what any high school kid in this situation would do: grab a fencing sword from the school gym and go on an epic quest to save the world. Because who else is going to do it?

So now let's talk about how the writers behind Persona managed to write flawed characters without jumping the Scrubb.

Ensemble Cast
One key to writing interestingly-flawed yet not-anvilicious characters is to remember to make sure that all (or at least most) of your characters should also have acknowledged flaws. Yes, even the "good" guys like Lucy and Caspian. (Crucial note: "Acknowledged" flaws here means that at least one other "good" character notices the character flaw in question and expresses dislike of the flaw explicitly to the reader.)

When Eustace is the Designated Bully (by which I mean he's the only bully that the narrative sees fit to call out on his bullying) with a host of other flaws, and everyone else seems intended to be read as cardboard-cutout goodies with no real flaws to speak of, then we're faced with some problems straight of the gate. Caspian, Lucy, and Edmund aren't perfect -- and in fact they have temptation scenes throughout the book intended to impart character growth -- but the flaws in their characters aren't consistently shown or explored in the same pervasive way that Eustace's flaws are constantly being focused on. Which means that everything starts to feel very lopsided and unrealistic from the beginning.

Let's meet the ensemble Persona cast, starting with the player characters whom you have a choice (sort of; Yuki was cut from the American version) whether or not to recruit into your party.

Alana/Yuka is a somewhat superficial girl who cares more about boys and fashion than about colleges and careers. She's frank to the point of rudeness, and doesn't seem to view other people's feelings as her concern. In true non-judgmental narrative form (lacking from our contrasting Narnia example), these facts are left entirely up to the player to interpret: you're equally welcome to see Alana as a free spirit unconstrained by the unreasonable expectations of a flawed society or as a just-a-bit-too selfish person whose focus on herself to the exclusion of all others is deeply harmful. Whichever interpretation you end up with, the game isn't going to resist you or correct you: other characters will give their opinions on Alana (and it's crucial to the non-judgmental-ness that those opinions are varied rather than uniform) and Alana herself will change over the course of the game, but it's not beaten into the player with a stick that she must change or risk unbiased godly damnation.  

Final score: Might or might not be the sort of person you'd want to hang out with, but seems like a realistic portrayal of a blunt personality.

Ellen/Eriko is a wealthy, well-educated girl who has been studying overseas in private schools for the majority of her life. When faced with a difficult situation to solve, Ellen ends up being right about 90% of the time and dangerously over-confident the remaining 10%. In these latter cases, she is frequently likely to underestimate the deadly seriousness of a situation as well as to significantly overestimate her ability to deal with the problem entirely on her own. She has difficulty making close friends, and struggles with acknowledging her own limitations. Her classmates tend to consider her very elegant with classy manners, but Ellen can also be seen as very standoffish and aloof. Once again, it's left up to the player to decide whether or not this adds up to someone likeable to have around as a friend, as well as whether Ellen's chronic overconfidence and sometimes off-putting aloofness is an annoying side-effect of her rich upper-middle-class upbringing or a sympathetic result of her feeling understandably isolated (due to her education, class, and overseas travel) while burdened with unreasonable expectations from her demanding family.

Final score: Might or might not be the sort of person you'd want to hang out with, but seems like a realistic portrayal of an aloof personality.

Brad/Hidehiko is the class clown of the school, and employs punny jokes, flashy attire, and deliberately inept flirting in his constant never-ending quest to draw attention to himself. He's a chronic braggart, and will consistently take full credit for any and all party victories, despite usually being the first to urge retreat when faced with a difficult situation. Despite being an unrepentant troublemaker, he has his own personal standards of who constitutes an Acceptable Target and how far is crossing the line -- he insists that he draws the line at pranks, even though some of his 'teasing' could be construed by his targets as bullying. (Intent being not magic, even in a world with demons and personas.) As with all the other characters, it's left up to the player to decide if Brad's constant unashamed boasting is adorkable and endearing or just plain grating and annoying. Over the course of the game, it's revealed that he's absolutely aware of the potentially annoying nature of many of his personality traits, but he seems to genuinely believe that people like him more as a loud braggart than as someone a little more quiet.

Final score: Might or might not be the sort of person you'd want to hang out with, but seems like a realistic portrayal of someone who craves attention.

Yuki/Yukino is a reformed delinquent who has become deeply serious about her future life and career. She's made a concentrated attempt to emulate her favorite teacher, and seeks to be a mother figure to the student body. When things initially go all to hell and literal demons begin to besiege the school, Yuki is the party member who takes charge of the other students and helps direct the efforts to fortify the school further against attack. But while many of the students look up to Yuki as a responsible role-model, her tendency to give orders (rather than asking politely or maneuvering via social grace) can be off-putting to some students, who may object to being bossed around by one of their peers. Yuki is additionally very serious, and refuses to participate in games, preferring to spend her time more constructively. Once again, it's left up to the player whether to find Yuki admirable or to see her character after reformation as just another persona taken to an unhealthy extreme (in contrast to her former persona as a juvenile delinquent).

Final score: Might or might not be the sort of person you'd want to hang out with, but seems like a realistic portrayal of someone attempting to turn over a new leaf.

Chris/Reiji is a deeply antisocial transfer student who is new to the school and rarely bothers to show up for class. Most of the other students find his sullen demeanor and his odd habit of skulking around the secluded parts of town disturbing, and very few make a serious attempt to be his friend. (Notably, playable character Mark/Masao feels differently about Chris and befriends him from a distance by extending, but never pushing on him, an open offer of friendship.) Chris is the child of a struggling single mother, and he doesn't like his life -- he blames much of his current circumstances on his wealthy father and step-brother, both of whom have refused to acknowledge Chris and his mother, or contributed to their well-being. As with all the optional characters, it's largely left to the player to decide whether Chris' complaint with his family is something reasonable and worth aiding, or whether Chris is being immature by blaming all his unhappiness on others rather than making a positive effort (a la Yuki) to make life better for himself and his mother.

Final score: Might or might not be the sort of person you'd want to hang out with, but seems like a realistic portrayal of someone who has latched onto the right reason for why his life sucks but has then gone in very-probably entirely the wrong direction for how to fix everything.

These characters, you will please note, are not at their basic level deeply original. I think they're wonderfully well-written, but it's not like this game was the first game ever to come up with Ditzy Girl, Overconfident Girl, Braggart Boy, Serious Girl, and Brooding Boy. No one in the Atlus boardroom could have reasonably smacked the table in astonishment and said Brilliant! A brooding handsome quiet boy on a mysterious quest for vengeance to clear his mother's honor! IT'S SO ORIGINAL! That would have been a very silly thing to say, indeed.

But what makes these characters valuable from a story-telling perspective (beyond the other stuff that we'll get to later) is that they're all realistically flawed in their own ways, rather than ALL THE FLAWS being piled into one or two of them so that they can be redeemed later. If we were to break up all the informed flaws of Eustace Scrubb as according to his own author -- fashionable underwear, preachy vegetarianism, bullying behavior, preference for non-fiction over fantasy, and being a mommy's boy -- we would have to place each one (and only one) of those flaws with the characters above. Alana would be on-board with the fashionable underwear, but not with the whole non-fiction thing. Yuki would embrace the non-fiction books, but would have no interest in bullying. And so forth.

Part of what makes flawed characters interesting is handing out flaws with a light touch. One or two flaws, possibly thematically related, are generally more interesting than a whole bucket of flaws that have been info-dumped on the reader from the get-go. And when you add into the mix the understanding that these "flaws" are subjective -- that some people might find them annoying while other people might not, and that there's no authorial judgment attached to those choices -- then things get more interesting still. A Yuki where we are flat-out told to either dislike or respect her is a boring Yuki; a Yuki where her past and personality are laid out on the table and the player gets to decide whether or not to find her likeable is a much better character.

Deep Characterization
Another way to make flaws more interesting and less anvilcious, besides leaving it up to the reader as to whether or not to even view them as "flaws" as opposed to just "differences", is to provide the character with deeper characterization than being more than just a sum of flaws. There are lots of ways to do this including leaving the door open so that the reader may see why those flaws exist in the first place and/or crafting the character so that their flaws are just one-side of a many-faceted person.

When it comes to seeing why flaws exist, and the mitigating effect of that knowledge on the reader's perception of the character, we've talked already about how Ellen and Yuki have background reasons for why their flaws exist. It's possible to view Ellen's aloofness and overconfidence as less irritating and more pitiable once the reader takes into account that her upbringing, though wealthy and privileged, has left her sheltered and without many close friends or the sorts of "typical" experiences that might allow her to socialize with her peers. And Yuki's seriousness and stoic nature makes more sense when the characterization drops that she's had a troubled childhood, and has been involved in gang activity -- she's trying to overcompensate for running wild in her youth and concentrate on building a brighter future however she can.

But for a more drastic example than Ellen and Yuki, we have Nate/Kei, a mandatory playable character in your party. Nate is the rich heir to a wealthy conglomerate company, and has been raised in the lap of utmost luxury all his life. It's very likely that the player will take an initial disliking to Nate, given his superior attitude and heavy-handed manner when interacting with the other characters. Nate is haughty and argumentative, considers himself to be mature beyond his years, and is the character who will always suggest the most cynical course of action (and any player taking Nate's cold-yet-pragmatic advice will usually be punished with various Bad Endings, since video games tend to reward idealism and this one is no different in that respect).

Yet very early in the story, it is revealed that Nate has an unexpectedly close relationship with to his butler, Alfred/Yamaoka, and he considers the older man to be a surrogate parent in place of Nate's much more distant biological father. When the initial earthquake-and-demons apocalypse kicks off, Alfred sacrifices his own life in order to save a hospital employee from demons, and Nate arrives at the scene of the sacrifice too late to save Alfred.

While in some respects this can be seen as a typical Fridge Scene (where a minor character is killed off to cause anguish for a major character), both Alfred and Nate have been characterized enough at this point that it's possible for the player to be deeply affected by the incident. It's very possible to view Nate's imperious manner in a new light, as a defensive tactic bred from an isolated upbringing. And Nate himself is deeply shaken by Alfred's death: though he doesn't change quickly or immediately, his character for the rest of the game walks a line between trying to realize Alfred's selfless idealism while still grappling with years of cold pragmatism. Nate's Ultimate Persona, if you help him to achieve the personality that he most desires for himself, is even named and stylized after Alfred, and will make an appearance in later games as well. (Persona Alfred being stylized as a mecha-angel in a snazzy suit riding a gold-and-silver surfboard, naturally.)

Nate's rival for much of the game -- and potentially equally annoying to the first-time player -- is Mark/Masao, a childish, impulsive, hot-headed, slang-using teenager who disrespects his mother and has an alarmingly care-free attitude about life, the universe, and pretty much everything. Player conversations in the early half of the game usually end up with Nate and Mark shouting at each other over ideological differences, with Mark needling Nate for his rich upbringing and cold nature and with Nate accusing Mark of being foolish and short-sighted.

Nate may not be the player's favorite character at this point, but that doesn't make his enemy Mark automatically more endearing. Mark's impulsive nature and childish approach to life may not be the most damning flaws in the series, but still carry the potential to get old after awhile given that Mark is both a mandatory party member and the chattiest character in the group, which means that the player will have plenty of exposure to his quirky, loud antics.

But equally early in the game, around the time that we're first given a glimpse of Nate's Alfred and the door is opened to seeing that Nate's background is more complicated and less rosy than it might appear from the outside, the penny drops that Mark has a lot of hidden complexity as well. Despite being careless and happy-go-lucky almost to a fault, he's the student who has been most supportive of the long hospitalization of Mary/Maki Sonomura. Mary was a popular girl at school, but due to a chronic illness has been subject to an extremely long hospitalization stay. Some of her friends have tried to stay in touch with the occasional visit, but the majority of the school has gone on with their daily lives. Mark is the only one who has visited faithfully, bringing books and flowers and paint supplies, as well as messages from Mary's friends who can't visit as often.

Mark isn't a Nice Guy. He doesn't belabor his interest in Mary, which appears to possibly be romantic as well as friendly. But we can say "appears" there because he doesn't beat the player -- or Mary -- about the head with his feelings. Instead, he behaves as a genuine friend to her throughout the game, even after Mary starts dropping hints that she'd prefer a relationship with the protagonist. The overall picture we get from this is that Mark, despite his faults, is a genuinely nice guy. He's childish, yet mature enough to not demand that his feelings for a girl be front-and-center at all times. He's immature, but he's wise enough to offer friendship without trying to attach romantic strings to the offer. He's happy-go-lucky and doesn't think about the future, yet he's willing to visit a gloomy hospital to bring relief to his depressed friend when almost no one else had the courage to do so.

Nate and Mark aren't necessarily likeable. It's entirely possible to play through the entire game without feeling like they'd be great friends to have around in real life. Indeed, if I had my druthers, I'd change them both out for some of the optional characters that I find more interesting. But they're understandable, and they have enough deep characterization that they don't come off as a After School Special on the subject of flaws with the Golden Mean Fallacy being the obvious answer at the end of the day. Nate isn't flawed just because he's serious (with Too Serious being bad), and Mark isn't flawed because he's not serious (with Not Serious Enough being bad), and with the two meeting in the middle by the end game.

Their seriousness and lack thereof do flow organically from their actual flaws, but those flaws are More Complicated and Have Reasons and are Usefully Contradicted when it comes to how they treat others like Alfred and Mary. And all of that adds up to a meaningful and deep, yet flawed, character rather than a cardboard cutout to be bashed on Because Vegetarian.

Empathy Hooks
Related to deep characterization and letting the reader see where the flaws came from and glimpse the underlying humanity of the character in question, is the fact that once you open that door it's often pretty easy for the individual reader to find something to empathize with. In other words, you don't have to hit the reader over the fact with Super! Sad! Backstory! If you open the door and give them a long glimpse, usually they'll walk on through without further prompting. If your goal is nuanced writing, then only good can come from this; if you goal is to make a point about those goddamn vegetarians on your lawn, then you should skip this step.

Let's go back to Mary. Mary has a chronic illness that has left her in and out of hospitals her entire life. By the time the game starts, she's been on an extended hospitalization stay for the better part of a year, with no indication that she'll be released any time soon.

Because this game is about the different "personas" inside us, it's worth pointing out that Mary has quite a few inside her, due to her understandably conflicted feelings about her health. Part of her resents her mother and her schoolmates for being absent from her life -- her mother being something of a workaholic (possibly in an attempt to find and/or afford a cure for Mary) and her schoolmates being absorbed enough in their own daily lives to be reliable fixtures in Mary's life. Another part of Mary yearns to be the carefree and bubbly girl that she imagines that she would be were she not weighted down with pain and illness all the time: a not-uncommon and perhaps not-unrealistic Fantasy of Being Healthy. (I EMPATHIZE.) Other parts of Mary are consumed with fear and anger and frustration, and again these are not untypical subconscious responses to having a body that is keeping you in constant pain and disability. It's very easy to be frightened of the future, or to be angry at the loss of your mobility, or to just plain be frustrated at how few people understand your situation when you're seriously disabled.

Most of this is explored in-game, but it's interesting to note that it emerges as the player has already started to think about all this. Mary's initial appearance and joining of the party is somewhat mysterious -- she's suddenly unexpectedly healthy and unusually bubbly -- but then again there's already the mystery of the earthquake and demons, so it's easy to shrug off her appearance as just another strange event in the series. It's only after the player has spent some time in this world and had a chance to really think about Mary and the difficult life she must have had, that a lot of these elements start coming out as part of the storyline.

And by the time Mary's anger starts to become a real problem for the player, we've had enough time to imagine ourselves in her shoes that it's hard to fault her for her natural emotional response: it's easy to believe that we would be angry too. It's the understated subtlety of her background and the open invitation to the player to mentally explore what her life would have been life which makes the final reveal so emotionally powerful and meaningful -- much more so than if Mary had been initially introduced as super-angry and awful and a problem (and also a vegetarian) by a narrator dispensing a flaw-fact-sheet with the same empathy as reading off a grocery list.

Character Growth
The other thing about character growth and the fixing of flaws is that in order to be really satisfying to the reader it helps if the growth flows organically from the story. Sure, you could drop a brand-new flaw into a character right before you go and solve it forever, as with Lucy and her Vanity Chapter, but the result tends to feel forced and fake to the reader. And similarly, you could randomly turn a bullying boy into a dragon and hope everything works out in the end (it worked for the Beast, right?!) but if the solution doesn't intuitively match up with the stated problem, a lot of readers may mentally rebel.

It's this slow simmer approach to character growth that really makes Persona work for me as a story. Everything is there, right from the very beginning, if you know what to look for. Nate is haughty in public yet cares for Alfred at home; Mark is childish at school but faithfully visits Mary in the hospital; Mary's initial introduction shows her from all sides: she is kind and happy when speaking of her best friend and her interests in art and reading, but she's agitated and upset when speaking of her mother and doctors. All the flaws are in place and are either front-and-center (Mark and Nate) or subtly visible (Mary). At the same time, the humanizing details that will lead to the characters' growth are also in place, as each person has a subject of interest or an object of compassion that hints at depth and potential beyond the surface flaws.

Part of the reason, in my opinion, why Edmund and Eustace pretty much drop off the face of the book after their conversion scenes are because as characters they were nothing more than the sum of their flaws. Once Edmund's sneaky-lying-bullying tendencies are redeemed by the power of Aslan, there's nothing left of an essential him in order to base anything on. So instead he just stops talking entirely for the remainder of the book. Eustace gets off a little more easily, but he does so in order to have a more proactive redemption: because a great deal of his sin was that of being not manly enough, he'll have scenes wherein he has a sword to wave around, most notably at the sea-serpent. So what Eustace we do get is largely defined as a sort of anti-Eustace from the beginning.

And this is necessary because if the only characterization you've given to someone is a bundle of flaws, then they become either an empty vessel or an anti-self once those flaws have been solved in the narrative. Similarly, if you want to solve a random flaw for an established "good" character, but they haven't been demonstrating that flaw up to that point in the novel possibly because you have a moral objection to "good" characters having flaws because then What Would The Children Think, then it's going to seem jarring to the reader to see the flaw dropped into the good character moments before the resolution of this supposed flaw.

But! If a character -- good or bad -- has been given a much more deep and well-rounded character than just a bundle of goodness or badness, then it's relatively easy to write them before and after their reformation. Pre-reformation, the parts of the character which seem most flawed tend to see a lot of the spotlight; post-reformation, the parts of the character which seem least flawed tend to shine front-and-center. And if you want to be really fancy about it, the virtues and vices can influence each other a little in either direction, so that the once-bully Edmund recognizes the potential for good in the now-bully Eustace because reformed Edmund hasn't completely forgotten what it was like to be bad.

And, indeed, the Persona series does exactly that by having characters from Revelations appear in Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment to live out their lives doing redemptive acts and trying to make the world a better place based directly, specifically, and explicitly on their learning experiences in Revelations rather than because they are now generically good and follow the generically good guidelines set down by a generically good deity.

In other words, they are well-rounded people after their redemption just as much as they were before. Which I think is a consequence of good writing and empathizing with one's characters. If you write realistic and understandable flawed characters, they'll be just as realistic and understandable after they've learned a valuable lesson about their flaws.

* Mark is a difficult character to talk about because he has a whole host of Unfortunate Implications that have been following him around from the first English PS1 release. In the original Japanese game, he was Masao: a childish, impulsive, hot-headed, slang-using teenager who disrespects his mother.

For the English release of the game, the makers laudably decided that the cast should have more racial diversity. Unfortunately, they chose to change only one character and thus Masao became Mark: a childish, impulsive, hot-headed, slang-using black teenager who disrespects his mother. And who is also the only black character in the game, meaning that not only does he have a number of Unfortunate Implications built in from the get-go, but also that there are no other black characters to offset these implications by providing visible counter-examples.

To "fix" this (as well as to fit with the other reverse-localization decisions made during the remake), the decision was made for the PSP remake to turn Mark back in Masao, meaning that the remake actively removed the one black character from the game as well as one of the very few black playable characters in the roster of the early Playstation library to begin with.


As a personal preference, I prefer Mark to Masao because -- like all the other characters in the game -- he does experience significant emotional growth over the course of the game, making his Unfortunate Implications seem (to me) more like realistic flaws to be overcome with age and experience, rather than flaws inherent to his race. I have also always held as head-canon that Mary ends up with Mark rather than with the silent protagonist (Mark being the sweetheart who visits her in the hospital and brings her gifts to cheer her up and genuinely cares about her, as opposed to your silent protagonist who has not and seemingly does not) which would make Mark-and-Mary a rare video game example of an interracial couple.

But that does not mean that the Unfortunate Implications with regards to Mark aren't there, nor does it mean that my privilege of being able to 'fix' things in my head-canon to be less unfortunate isn't precisely that: a privilege that exists because I am not personally affected by those Unfortunate Implications in the same way that others would/could be.


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