Public Personas“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” There’s an old saying that I need to kick to the curb. Making a good “cover” is precisely the skill that you need.
Most books have a well presented outside. The point of that cover is to sell you the book. Often enough, the cover doesn't match the inside. Most readers understand this. The cover is representative of the book rather than definitive. The cover exists, not for the book’s benefit, but for the reader’s benefit. The cover gives a cue to understanding the book to an ignorant observer.
People are just like books, and people have their own book covers. People are complex and full of stories, but those stories are so long and complex that each person also needs something that they can present right now to a another person that is understandable quickly. That book cover of theirs is their public persona.
As a writer, your characters also need a public persona. The public persona is the part of the character that readers quickly understand. The public persona helps us to understand who the character is in a story without having to stop, grind the story to a halt, and learn the character’s entire personal life.
A public persona is similar to a stereotype, but the differences are important. A fireman or a CEO has a persona that they project to do their job, and that persona exists so that their customers can interact with them in a predictable fashion. We learn how to interact with such roles because we can’t possibly learn how to interact with all the people taking those roles. This lets us, as highly idiosyncratic humans, have predictable interactions with strangers, which is a very useful thing.
The thing about roles is that we can attach meanings to those roles that have nothing to do with the role. That’s how normal humans remember. We take an idea and attach another idea to it. We take roles and attach other facts and ideas to that role. Some of those facts may be inaccurate while others facts have nothing to do with the role. Those are false associations or stereotypes. A fireman puts out fires, which is his role. “Firemen listen to country music” is not part of a fireman’s role, which makes that fact a stereotype. Yet, we lump the two together. As writers, we want the roles but we want to avoid stereotypes.
For many characters, we will only see their public personas. We don’t need any more out of them than their public roles, or the occasional glimpse of humanity coming out of their covers. These characters aren't real at all, but they seem just real enough that the readers skim over them.