Character… or personality?

When I introduce dialog to animation students, I point out that the word “persona” is derived from the latin words for “through sound”. It is through the characters voice that we can discover the personality. Actors in ancient Greek drama wore masks, but with open mouths to allow the actor to speak.


“Persona is the Latin word for the masks used in the Greek drama. It meant that the actor was heard and his identity recognized by others through the sounds that issued from the open mask mouth. From it the word ‘person’ emerged to express the idea of a human being who meant something, who represented something, and who seemed to have some defined connectedness with others by action or affects. (We still use ‘person’ to connote this: we say of an infant who begins to show awareness of self in relation to others, ‘He’s becoming a person.’) A person makes himself known, felt, taken in by others, through his particular roles and their functions. Some of his personae–his masks–are readily detachable and put aside, but others become fused with his skin and bone.”

(Helen Harris Perlman, Persona: Social Role and Personality. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986)

It has occurred to me that the Muppets are successful because of their great voice work.  The combination of good writing and great vocal performances create strong personalities.  The  visual design and production quality of the puppet would only get them part way.

Character, on the other hand, refers more to the thoughts and beliefs of an individual. Character is how a person makes choices, how they decide what’s right and wrong. It is what guides their direction.

So, a person can have a great personality, but a weak character. He or she can have positive interactions with others, but make poor decisions. Conversely, a person may be perceived as grumpy and antagonistic, but is actually following the right path.

Character is interior, personality is exterior.

When creating “characters” it’s useful to understand this difference. We tend to make characters who who express their thinking through their personality. The hero has a great personality, the villain is dislikable. But of course, history is filled with charismatic individuals who have brought great evil. And, the world is filled with misunderstood individuals who care deeply about others, but don’t know how to express it.

When designing the visuals for a character, remember that the appearance may be a mask for what is underneath. The “gentle giant” is a good example of a figure that is imposing, but is actually kind. On the other hand, female characters have often encountered a handsome admirer who turns out to be a cad.


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