How I develop a first person persona given basic facts available in census data and records.
Ok, so you’ve been assigned a person to portray and you have the basic facts
(age, birthday, marriage date, spouse name, occupation, siblings and parents,
children, etc) But how do you take that info and make a person come to life from
it? Well, any of you who have acting experience know this takes some thought. So
pull out a pencil and writing pad, you’re going to create a person!
Major events: all of us have experienced major events in our lives. This could
be the death of a loved one, our wedding day, or the day our first child was
born. It could also be military service or unusual circumstances such as the
time we were homeless and had to move in with our parents. Think about the
person you portray and how the sequence of their lives went. Did the deaths of
their children happen all at once? You can be sure that was tragic and tough
event to live through. The person had to be strong to get through that one.
These major events “build character” and by thinking about what it must have
been like, you can assume a few things about the character of your persona.
Personality quirks: all of us have them. It’s safe to assume that our persona’s
might have too. Even if not documented, people have certain aversions, likes,
habits (good and bad). Perhaps Dr. Myron twists the ends of his mustache when
he’s thinking. Or perhaps Elizabeth Brown is known under stairs for her bad
jokes. Or maybe Mary is a gossip. These little things bring life into a
character. Just be careful to keep it realistic and not over the top. It’s fine
to tell a few jokes. It’s NOT fine if Dr. Branch suddenly develops an allergic
reaction to butter during the course of the tea!!
Beliefs: religion played a MAJOR part in the lives of people from this time
period. I’ll be posting a few journal entries from Susan’s niece, Ellen, about
how much they did church. God was a daily part of their lives. The General laid
the groundwork for the first church, so it must have been important to them.
Interestingly, it did not matter the denomination. Ellen writes about visiting
several churches on any given sunday. It was a whole day of sermons! And it
wasn’t considered boring or annoying, but part of life. How can you work this
in? Well, memorize some scripture, be able to use religious sayings in
appropriate contexts such as “God bless you” or “God grant you safe passage” or
“I’ll pray for you” etc. Again, keep it realistic and subtle. We’re not looking
for a revival here!
Along with religion is politics. 1860 was the election year that elected
Lincoln. But there were around 4 other candidates as well. Perhaps Levi Parsons
was thinking about voting for Beckinridge. It’s worth while for those elligable
to vote (men over 18)to take a look at the 1860 election. Find out who was
currently running in 1859. Who would your persona have voted for? Incidentally,
we have nothing to tell us of the Mills’ beliefs on abolition and slavery. But
Myron lived in Rochester, home to Frederick Douglas. It is probable that he did
have an opinion on it. Remember too, that NY had abolished slavery in the state
as late as 1848 (I think?) so there might still be free blacks in the area that
people would have interacted with. Slavery in NY was NOT a distant memory.
Perhaps more concern would be about how the candidates were going to make
policies affecting native Americans. Indians had helped the General make a start
here and they could easily still be around (remember the “white woman of the
Genesee” Letchworth was a stone’s throw away!)
If your character is female, what about Temperence, Women’s rights, social
reform? Rich women were always doing something for charity. Mary Seymour would
grow up to be a prominent women’s rights activist. The seeds of that might have
been sown by her parents, or a close female relative or friend.
Speech: This is likely the hardest area to master. Consider if your character
might have had an accent (north, south, Irish) If the answer is yes, and you
don’t naturally have that accent, you should do your very best to learn that
accent from native speakers. YouTube is a good way to listen to others. Only do
the accent if you have it mastered. We don’t want any “Lucky charms” Irish
accents. And please remember that if you are transplanted from your homeland,
your accent might be wearing off over the years. Second generation might never
have had it to begin with. This one, being that it’s in our home area, we
shouldn’t have to worry about accent at all this time.
Besides accent, the hardest thing to get is to eliminate modern speech and words
for period alternatives. For instance, we don’t want to say “ok” or “yup”, we
want to say “yes” and “alright”. Don’t want to say “sweet!” or “Awesome”, you
want to say “bully!” or “How perfectly stunning!” Young ladies might “set their
cap at a boy” instead of “date” him. Words like “wonderful, splendid, oh misery,
oh my, goodness” can all substitute for some of our modern phrases. No one wants
to hear “This sucks!” in a period setting. Yes, it does require some training
and careful policing of the mouth, but practice makes perfect! And thinking
about how your character would react to a certain situation can help you to
pre-plan responses and make it that much easier to produce them in the moment.
Appearance: is likely dictated by status. Won’t get into that here.
Just as with most everything, preparation is key. Try to get into your persona’s
head, and then think about some of the situations they might encounter during
the event. Thinking now about how your character would react to certain
situations, and then pre-planning their actions and responses is the best way to
be sure that you have those responses available for recall during the actual
event. If you are serving, how would you react if a guest spilled something?
Would you wait for another servant to clean it up and thus shirk your job (which
would likely get you fired soon!) or would you clean it up right away to make a
good impression on your mistress? Are you timid, submissive, or aristocratic? If
you find someone saying nasty gossip about a close friend, how would your
character react? How does your persona deal with social situations? DO they find
them boring, or do they love the chance to chat or tell stories? Are THEY a
bore? If you have an active imagination yourself, perhaps you can make up old
war stories that you can recall for visitors. Or maybe there was the time that
you were at a barn raising and one of the walls didn’t raise.
If you are developing responses, and find that you need to know more about a
subject, take for instance the Mexican war, go and do a little research on that
war. Find out who was general then. Find out what branch your character may have
served with. Bone up on the major conflicts and how it turned out in the end.
It’s worth it and enriches your character. You can also make up stories amongst
the siblings. Say for instance that young Myron got stuck in a tree once and big
brother Sidney had to devise a way to get him down. Use this group to plan those
little things and it will make a group of people seem more like the family they
I can only give you the facts, it’s up to you to breathe life into your person.
This is also a case where the more you invest in planning and preparation, the
more you will get out of the event. The better prepared you are, the more
appealing and believable your persona will be.
Good luck. And if you need support, we’re right here to talk to!