Making Personas Sparkle Like Diamonds, Part 1

Early in our company’s life, persona development was largely an intuitive process. We wanted to develop a process we could use to train clients and partners to duplicate the persona development process. To do this, we delved into literature and film to understand character development.

We were fortunate to be introduced to a prominent Hollywood screenwriter and script evaluator, David Freeman. Freeman taught us about “character diamonds,” a tool he teaches in his course, Beyond Structure. Today, we’ll share what we learned about character diamonds. Next time, we’ll look at an advertising example and some issues surrounding these tools.

Identifying Character Diamonds

Freeman teaches characters as a series of layers. One layer is the character diamond. Each corner of the diamond represents a major trait in the character’s personality. A trait helps shape how the character sees the world, speaks, thinks, and acts. “Character diamond” loosely means the combination of three, four, or five traits that govern a character’s personality.

Some characters’ personalities are spread evenly among the traits. Others might have a trait so powerful it eclipses the others. In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader’s creepy evilness is his most salient trait, although he does possess others.

Let’s examine a character from “American Beauty.” Teenage Ricky Fitts is in love with Jane Burnham, daughter of Lester, the main character.

Ricky’s character diamond looks like this:

  • Aesthetic/spiritual. At one point, Ricky talks about a plastic bag dancing around him in the wind. It made him realize there’s a benevolent life force behind all things. He’s also is keenly aware of beauty and discusses it several times.
  • Depressed/apathetic. Ricky became depressed and apathetic after his father put him in a mental institution and drugged him for two years for being disobedient. He’s fascinated by death. He talks about it regularly. He videotapes a dead bird. He offers no resistance when his father beats him. Ricky is apathetic; he rarely touches Jane, his girlfriend. He prefers to look at life, even at her in one scene, through the detached lens of a video camera.
  • Direct/unflinching. Ricky stares at people he deals with; nothing makes him flinch.
  • Irresponsible. He smokes a lot of dope, deals it as well.

By the end of the film, Ricky’s depression and apathy have changed. Finally, he angrily confronts his father.

Character diamonds can get pretty fancy. Sometimes we see apparent contradictions: How can a person who is spiritually enlightened also be irresponsible? We use another tool, a “mask,” to address this issue.

When a character is phony, he wears a mask. He puts on a false self that fools others, sometimes even himself. Ricky really does believe he’s spiritually evolved. But his spiritual “enlightenment” is really a mask. The audience believes the enlightenment is real, until evidence of his depression and irresponsibility is revealed. Phony or not, Ricky’s spirituality helps govern how he sees the world; how he thinks, speaks, and acts.

Real people, and sometimes characters, can be even more complex. The mask can have a shred of truth in it, as with Ricky’s. He’s not a total phony, as he does have some genuine spiritual insights. For Ricky, spirituality is partly true, partly phony.

Addressing a Buyer’s Masks

White kids are the biggest consumers of rap music. Therefore, a suburban white kid may wear an urban black kid’s mask. You may want to address that corner of his diamond when selling him certain products or services. In the video games business, for example, suburban white kids are often addressed as if they were inner city black kids.

A top-selling game in late 2004 was “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” It allows players to role-play as young urban black men in trouble with the law.

When identifying your customers’ personas, your advertising and marketing must understand, and potentially address, any masks they might wear.

In part two: an advertising example and some issues surrounding these tools.

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