William Shakespeare was a playwright, poet and theatre owner who lived over 400 years ago. His work is still performed today, translated into countless languages, taught in schools and studied by scholars. How does someone achieve this type of longevity? Two words, Shakespeare was – ‘audience-centric’.
Or let’s ask a different question –
“To be or not to be, that is the question.”
In the play of the same name, Hamlet is pondering his life and death: a state of being versus a state of not being. We might redirect the question and apply it to Shakespeare’s own work. How has his work survived and stayed relevant? And how can the secrets of this staying power help you connect with your own audience?
The answer is one word: characters.
John Bell, the founder of Bell Shakespeare, explains that prior to Shakespeare plays were constructed around well-known archetypes. An archetype is an example of a type of person who exists to fulfill a defined role. For example, a young innocent maiden’s archetypal role is to be saved by a brave hero, fall in love or marry a king.
Shakespeare used a different method of telling stories. Rather than focus on the external roles and actions taken by a one-dimensional archetype, he created complex characters with internal conflicts.
Let’s look at Hamlet’s famous line again, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ This statement is a reflection of Hamlet’s emotional pain over the death of his father, the loss of his role as the crown prince and being spurned by a lover. If he was an archetype he might say something about the role of his external life such as, ‘I am ordained by God to rule after my father is dead. I must regain the crown for myself!’
But he does not. Instead, he conducts an emotional examination of his life. He asks if he ceases to live, will he continue to suffer? Or if he continues to live, how long will his suffering continue? It reveals how he sees himself in the world and what motivates him. He is a deeply conflicted character with a corresponding complex emotional landscape.
Shakespeare created characters. He observed human behavior closely to move past archetypes to create a well-rounded person. It is his examination of the personal that makes his characters so universally appealing. Characters who stand the test of time.
There is a comparison here between personas and archetypes versus the idea of developing characters for personas. And not just any character, a well-rounded complete, conflicted Shakespearean character.
In human-centered design, Personas are a fictional segment of people who use your service, product, site, or brand in a similar way. A persona is meant to provide deep insights that will help you to understand your client’s or customer’s needs, experiences, behaviors, and goals.
Characters, on the other hand, is a depiction of one person that feels complex and deeply emotional. Compare that to the last persona you read or have used for a project. Did this persona feel like a real living, breathing human being?
The answer was probably no. Personas are based on data, demographics, research and key insights based on interviews. And they feel two-dimensional.
Personas are constructed to understand a group of people to solve problems for them. Moving into the more emotional and empathic space of an individual character creates deeper insights into their emotional landscape and what is motivating them. How can a detailed characterisation of one person provide deeper insights than a generalised depiction of the many?
Let’s look at an example:
Let’s begin with a traditional persona and then compare it to a character profile. Below is a persona called Mel who was developed for hypothetical photo storage/organising platform aimed at busy young mothers.
Traditional Persona Example
Motivation statement for a persona: Mel is motivated to capture the precious moments of her family as her young child grow up.
Behavior statement for a persona: Mel is rarely at home due to work, school commitments, activities and daycare. She rarely sits down to plan or thinks about organisation beyond the next week.
Quote: “I wish I could freeze time; each moment is precious. They grow up so fast. I have so many photos on my phone, what if I lose them? How do I store and organize them?
Character For A Persona Example
Motivation statement of a Character: Mel loves showing photos of her children to her parents who don’t live close by. She feels like she is the link between two generations, connecting her parents to her children. Since becoming a mother, she has gained a new appreciation of her family’s history and how she wants to preserve it into the next generation.
Behavior for a character example: Mel is busy creating happy memories for her family. She takes them to the pool for swimming lessons, just like her parents did for her. She has put endless hours of thought into choosing the experiences her children attend. She knows these experiences will be carried into the rest of their lives. She is constantly creating videos and photos. So they can look back on these times and their memories together. She hopes one day her children will share it with their own families.
Quote: I remember looking at our family photo albums with my mother and grandmother as a child. They tried to explain who the people were, but so many of the names of the people and places the photos were lost to time. I live in a world where we can capture so much, but still so much is forgotten. How can I capture and document things so my children and maybe their children can understand their own history? With all of the tools available to use, there is no excuse anymore for our stories to be undocumented.
What is the difference between the persona and the character? The persona provides statements that are broad and general. The character provides insights into one person’s life. There is a problem with trying to understand the many, an intimate emotional connection is not available to us.
One of the rules of storytelling is the personal is the universal. The deeper you go into the aspects of one person, the more someone else can identify with it. This is because most of human experience is not unique. We share common emotional responses to things like our family, our work or falling in love. While the details of the experience of the situations in our own life will vary, our emotional response is likely to be the same as the character. And that creates empathy. Empathy is at the core of being audience-centric. With Shakespeare’s disregard for role-based archetypes to creating empathic characters, the way we understood other people evolved.
Let’s revisit Hamlet. Not many of us would have the lived experience of our father being murdered by our uncle. Who then marries our own mother and takes our crown. But many of us have felt betrayed by our families are some point. Shakespeare hooks into this human experience of feeling betrayed by those we love and exposes us to the tortured landscape of Hamlet’s mind. And here it is, the personal becomes the universal.
There is one more important component of a good character, they all contain a tragic flaw. Humans have a tendency to get stuck in loops of repeating patterns and so did Shakespeare’s characters.
A tragic flaw is both a curse and a blessing. For example, Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his inability to act. In many ways, this flaw saved his life, but it also stopped him from resolving his very complex family situation.
Character development is important for Personas, and so is identifying this tragic flaw. Often the character is blind to it, but it is clear to the rest of us. Being able to see this tragic flaw is what provides the tools to truly understanding how to create something valuable for this client or customer. If we can see their problems, we can start to find the solution.
I will revisit our Character based persona Mel who wants to capture and preserve her family:
Mel’s Tragic Flaw – Mel sees her children’s and family’s success as an extension of her own. For her, the drive to over-commit and achieve is driven by status and outward markers of success. Her time-poor situation is her own doing because she is afraid of being judged for doing less or not doing all of the right things. It is important that Mel links her process of documentation to her sense of achievement and success. And though she is busy, she is creating amazing experiences for her children and they love the activities together.
In a traditional persona, a tragic flaw may be referred to as a pain point. A traditional approach to a pain point might be written as follows:
Mel’s Pain Points: Mel is so busy she doesn’t have time for planning or organising. She is often on the go and gets frustrated by things she can’t do on her phone or tablet. She also struggles to block out uninterrupted family time, and this makes her feel frustrated.
The true power of the Tragic Flaw is that it is not about solving one problem. It is about building a motivational worldview. If done well it should be updated with deepening and ongoing insights into the needs of your audience as the character develops. Think of your favorite TV show, your knowledge of the character and what they are likely to say think and do deepen with each episode. And so should your relationship with your audience. Characters are defined by the emotions that sit behind what motivates them. They are defined by their flaws. They are defined by their strengths.
Character development provides a framework of thinking so we can provide context and meaning around the stories of our audience’s lives. And thanks to Shakespeare, we have characters, a way to create unforgettable fictional people that stand the test of time. Begin your own character development process by going deep into the emotions of your audience and it will evolve over time.
Or in the words of The Bard –
“Wisely and slow, they stumble that move fast.” Friar Lawrence, Romeo and Juliet
Have questions on where to start your character journey, get in touch, I welcome any opportunity to explore this topic further!