Readers perceive someone speaking to them from the page. We call this character “the narrator,” and name the device “voice.” Voice is the illusion that the page speaks. It’s created by the consistent use of rhetorical devices.
I originally typed, “I is created by the consistent use of rhetorical devices.” Indeed, the first person singular “I” who narrates much writing, including this blog post, is one of those devices.
There’s another character involved here, the “persona,” the fictional person who does the talking. You’ve had a persona your whole life, probably without knowing it; it enables your social life.
When you talk with another person, one on one, the “real you” is not doing the talking, nor is the other person’s “real you” speaking. Both of you are using personas, masks, puppets that you hold up between you. This persona is the fictional you that you create and control by what it says and does, and how it looks. It’s an artifact; you made it, and you spend your whole life remaking it. Life is an act, your persona is the character you play, and you are the actor. Most people have several personas, at the simplest level, public and private.
Writing is a form of acting, in that we impersonate the voice speaking from the page. The author is not the persona; authors position their personas between their real selves and their readers.
That distance frees the author from the prison of sincerity. When Joan Baez sings, “I am a man of constant sorrow,” she does not expect her listeners to assume she has changed her gender. The author is always the author, but the author can make the persona speak as a man or a woman, a whaler, Pontius Pilate, worms on Noah’s Ark, whatever.
When Gail Collins writes a column in the New York Times, the persona Gail Collins does the talking. In non-fiction, we’re seldom as sure of what we’re saying as we sound on the page. The persona enables irony.
Isn’t the persona a form of lying? Yes, just as the mask you hold up in front of you when you talk with your mother is a form of lying, even for good social purposes. You seldom say what you really think or mean. (Mothers get problematic when they say what they really think.) Rather than call this handy device “lying,” we could better think of it as fiction. All writing is a form of fiction, in that it rearranges reality to represent the world, just as a map is a form of fiction as it flattens the round Earth.
You’ve perfected this powerful device all your life, probably unconsciously, and now you have a name for it: my persona. Now let it free you to write what you want to say.
[What sort of persona do you use? How did you create it? My next post will discuss your internal persona.]