Persona vs Narrator

This morning I got a message from an instructor using A Writer’s Craft, whose student asked a question about using the term persona to talk about the narrator’s point of view. I got a little carried away with my answer, so I thought I’d also post it here.

There’s nothing terribly wrong about using the term persona for the narrator in fiction, I suppose, though most people don’t. In general terms, the narrator of a story is a persona of the author, but we distinguish it as a distinct kind of persona because it is so common in fiction. So a narrator is a kind of persona, and the two terms are related, but we use the term narrator for fiction because there are many personae of the author in fiction: the implied authorial perspective, the narrator, and each of the characters. To explore this idea further, if you don’t mind delving into some Russian formalism, you explore Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories on the dialogic in fiction (see The Dialogic Imagination). I tend to disagree somewhat with how he portrays poetry, but his thoughts on the many voices in fiction were ground-breaking.

In a poem, we generally distinguish one voice as the speaker and that speaker is either closely related to the poet’s voice (though never entirely) or very clearly the voice of a character (real or fictional). We would call the latter a persona poem because the poet takes on someone else’s voice and the former a persona of the poet because the poet’s voice in a poem is never exactly their voice in other aspects of life, as long as they are actively aware they are writing a poem.

For nonfiction we might use the term narrator or persona, depending on the kind of essay and whether we were comparing it to fiction or poetry, I suppose. Using narrator is probably the most common for nonfiction forms other than the lyric essay, where we’re likely to borrow terminology from poetry. And we generally don’t use those terms at all in drama because we just speak about characters’ dialogue, stage directions, etc. that do the work of a narrator or a persona. So each genre has its preferred terminology, and using it will help you sound authoritative and get your point across, but it’s also good to consider how and where those terms overlap or are getting at nearly the same thing.

Since the question was actually about using persona to discuss the narrator’s point of view, I should say that POV is a little trickier and even more specific. We use those terms primarily for fiction because they describe the narrator’s relationship to the action and to the characters. We don’t have corresponding terminology for poetry, though maybe we should. Maybe we don’t because there often aren’t other characters, so we don’ need to describe the speaker’s relationship to the characters the way we do with the narrator in fiction. But sometimes we do want to know who the speaker of a poem is, and when we do we usually borrow terms for point of view from fiction.

I enjoyed considering the question, and I hope my answer is helpful. It’s the kind of discussion I hope A Writer’s Craft encourages students to have and to look for their own answers about.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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