Since I’ve been in the SCA (21 years next month. I’m getting old!) I’ve been interested in persona development. And since I’ve recently created a new persona to fit with new interests, I thought that others might be interested in some basic guidelines for building one. So here goes...
Place, Time, and Clothes
First off, look at places and times that you might be interested in. Don’t hesitate to look at something off the beaten path, like Eastern Europe, the Iberian peninsula, or the Crusader States, or time period a bit out of the ordinary, such as 10th century France or Germany, or 15th century Spain. You can also go for something more common, like 14th century England– there’s a wealth of information there, and you can go in depth quite easily.
But before you go further, take a basic look at the clothes. Don’t put your persona in a time and place where the clothes would be difficult to wear. Don’t choose a persona in 16th c England if you are not comfortable in a corset and hoops and would rather wear t-tunics! And if you are allergic to wool, Viking-era Scandinavia is not a good idea! So look for a place and time that you can be comfortable in physically as well as socially.
A name can be rather tricky, or it might be easy. Will the Potter would be good for a 12th century Englishman who is a potter by trade. But a long Gaelic name that no one can pronounce might not be best for him. And Will Potter doesn’t really suit a Polish nobleman.
The Heralds can actually be a good resource to start looking for a suitable name. They can tell you the rules of submission and what will or will not work for registering a name in the SCA. They also have a great many historical resources for names, including books, articles, and computer resources. There are all sorts of sources for names– more than history books. There are names on charters and cartularies. There are names on inventories and wills. There are names in tax records and chronicles. Don’t be afraid to explore!
There may or may not be an “Aha!” moment. You may find a name quickly, or your may be “John For-now” for awhile. And both are good.
Test your name out. Say it out loud, see if you like the sound. Read it and try to imagine every way that a herald could possibly mangle it (because they will). Think about how someone might shorten it or make a nickname from it. Are they ok or will they irritate you? If you don’t like Beth or Bess or Liz, the name Elizabeth may not be for you.
If there are already two or three or more Svens in your area, choosing Sven may not be the best idea. You run the risk of someone saying “You know Sven, tall guy with a beard, wears glasses...” and there are three of you that answer to that description. Sigurd might be a better choice.
Class and Social Life
Think about what sort of life you would like to lead in the SCA. Are you interested in the life of a working-class Englishman in the 14th century? Or do you think that the life of a Frankish noble is for you? Again, take a look at the clothes you would be wearing. Could you live in them for a long weekend camping event? What would your camp look like? How might you react to being called in court? Would an 5th century Irishman kneel to the Crown?
Your own interests may influence your choices. Do you enjoy making Viking-era glass beads? 9th century Denmark might be a good place for you. Do you enjoy calligraphy and are particularly adept at Blackletter hands? A 15th century German persona might be a good fit. Are you really interested in medieval Medicine? A persona based in Palermo, Sicily could be just the thing. Or do you really want to bash some Saracen heads? A Frenchman on Crusade could give you that opportunity! If you are very interested in higher learning or theology, you could have a religious person– a monk, or perhaps a canon at one of the cathedrals, or a member of one of the teaching orders.
And what would you like to accomplish in the SCA? If you are interested in fighting and really want to be a knight someday, a 16th century Anabaptist in Germany will not be a good fit for your persona. But a Landsknecht would be! If gentler arts are your thing, and you really want to perfect your blackwork embroidery, a English Tudor persona would give you a good setting for your work. If you really want to get into administration and you have a knack for organizing things, the persona of an English civil servant in the 14th or 15th century would give you unfussy clothes a great deal of opportunities for research into medieval civil administration. For instance, did you know that Chaucer was in civil service? He worked for the Royal customs, and was even sent on a number of diplomatic missions. This could be just the life for you!
All of these are just suggestion– there are many avenues open, and many different lives you can pursue. Don’t be afraid to try on different hats (perhaps literally!) Before you settle into something you are comfortable in.
As to comfort, think about who you are now, in the modern world. It may be easier for you to form your persona around a medieval version of your modern self. Suppose you work in retail- there’s no reason why you couldn’t be a shopkeeper for your person. You don’t have to actually merchant (though you could!) in the SCA, but you could dress as one, accumulate the objects a shopkeeper might have in his home. Your own temperament matters too. If you are very shy, being a Herald might be uncomfortable. (Or it might not be- many shy people are fine in public when they have a script.) On the other hand, some people want to be something very different from their modern lives. A computer programmer might find that being a blacksmith on weekends is fun. Or a grad student might have fun being the king’s Fool.
Wearing your persona in the SCA
Once you have figured out who you are, the next step is to figure out how to use your persona. Some people don’t- they simply construct the framework, and leave it at that. And that’s perfectly ok. Others want to submerge themselves a bit more. And this is the tricky part.
Usually the first thing people do when trying to be ‘in persona’ is to affect ‘forsooth’ speech. I recommend against it. For one thing, it usually ends us as a bad imitation of Shakespearean-era speech– unless your persona is actually Elizabethan English, and you actually have a grasp of the grammar and vocabulary. Otherwise it is generally just irritating. Don’t do it.
If you’re interested in talking more like you would if you were in your time and place, here’s some pointers:
Formalize your speech a bit. Do not use contractions. Drop the slang. (For me, the difficult one is dropping the Daffy Duck “Whoo-hoo!”)
Don’t try to use another language, perhaps beyond a greeting. Wishing someone good morning in your persona’s language can be a nice touch. But more than that can be problematic, particularly if the person you’re speaking to is not fluent in your language. (For instance, the only time I’ve ever heard Anglo-Saxon used conversationally was in the elevator at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo. I thought it was quite funny, frankly.)
Learn some of your persona’s oaths, even swear words. A Crusader might use “God’s teeth!” or “God’s Blood!” (All of God’s body parts seen to be fair game here.) An Elizabethan version of this sort of oath is “‘Zwounds!”, which is a shortened version of “God’s wounds!”, referring to the wounds Christ received at the Crucifixion. A 15th century Frenchman might say “Jesu Maria!” when swearing. A “Viking” might swear by Odin’s hand, a 14th century Englishman by Heaven. In general, basic histories or biographies will give you some clues.
It may take a little getting used to. On the other hand, if you are feeling really self conscious doing it, it’s not working. Speak as you would normally and don’t worry about it.
And here comes the hard part: being ‘in persona’ around others.
When someone is acting as though their ‘personal space’ is 15th century Italy, it can be very difficult for an 8th century Saxon to chat with them as they work on redacting a 14th century English recipe. And sometimes this can be quite annoying.
The most elegant solution I have found for this is to remember that you are currently in An Tir (or Atlantia or Meridies or wherever). You can say “At home in Verona they like to cook pork like this–“ or “I have a wonderful recipe from the King Richard’s cooks in London. Would you like to see it?” Everyone is a visitor for immigrant from Somewhere Else, and currently living in Myrtleholt, or Corvaria, or Three Mountains. You might be a scholar in Louis VII of France’s court, and a Baron to the Court of An Tir.
Talking about “current events” can be dicey, but it can be done. You might say something like “When last I heard from my brother in London, he said that Master Chaucer died recently. I was quite saddened by the news. Have you read any of his poetry?” It could be a nice way to introduce a topic of conversation. But political talk about an ongoing Crusade might not be a good topic in front of a Persian Prince. But you might ask if he has read the work of Omar Khayyam.
A lot of “accidental learning” can happen while you’re developing a persona. When I was working on a late 14th- early 15Th century persona, I learned a great deal about literature, particularly women’s literature, about religious practice and affective piety, and about the Hundred Years’ War. Now that I am working on a late 8th century Frankish persona, I’m learning a lot about the development of governmental structures, about the beginnings of courtliness, laws from several cultures, literacy and calligraphic changes, even what was in Charlemagne’s gardens.
The Point of all of this...
Relax. Be yourself. Be your medieval self. Remember that you’re supposed to enjoy yourself. Learn, but be sure to have fun along the way.
the former Elaine de Montgris is now know as Liutgard of Luxeuil. Liutgard is a late 8th century noblewoman of Alemannic and Austrasian ancestry, who is a scholar and teacher in the court of Charles the Great. She spends a good deal of time arguing with Alcuin, mostly about St Augustine.