Character study?

During last week’s thesis workgroup, we were introduced to the idea of getting to know our audiences through character studies.

A character study is not the same thing as a persona. Personas exist to help us envision an entire demographic at a time, and the end result is often a rather bland portrait of Pure Averageness. This is a pleasant exercise and convenient for the designer, but the end result is wholly uninteresting, and worse, unrealistic. We create personas because they are supposed to give us an actual human being to empathize with while designing. But how many human beings do you know that have perfect teeth/skin/hair and only wear one type of clothing all the time? Personas are the iStockphoto of imagined people.

A character, on the other hand, is far more like a human being: idiosyncratic, unpredictable and contradictory. They can only be understood as individual accidents of nature/nurture, not as constructed, idealized stand-ins for an aggregate. This helps us get out of the mindset of Perfect Design Land into Messy Real Life Land. It might even help us understand & anticipate some surprising (mis)uses of a designer’s intent.

So here’s my first stab at a character study:


Vera Applebottom is thirty-one years old and lives in Orange County. She works for a pharmaceutical firm as director of HR, hiring and firing people and listening to them complain about their jobs in between. She used to be an elementary school English teacher. Now she earns twice as much, but it’s debatable whether or not this was an improvement.

In fact, going to graduate school to study management might be her biggest life regret. She used to wear socks with pumpkins on them for Halloween, to match her witch hat. She liked spending time with children, especially liked being one of the “fun teachers” that all the other teachers’ kids wished they had for homeroom. Now she wears white socks and no hat indoors, all days of the year.

Her most prized possession is a pair of antique pruning shears given to her by her late aunt. Her aunt was the only person who empathized with the fact that she had any regrets in life. Everyone else, especially her two sisters (both housewives), admired her independence and ability to generate income. Her mother, especially, liked to brag that her daughter was a modern woman with a mind and job of her own. Forget that, at her eldest sister’s wedding last year, Vera was so jealous she wanted to grab the limo from the driver and use it to run over the groom. Or at least a bridesmaid or two.

She consoles herself with cooking every night. Domestic, feminine joys seemed beyond her reach for the most part, but she could make fabulously, unnecessarily sophisticated one-person meals for herself in her two-bedroom condo while watching Family Guy. She wonders if/when she gets married, whether the man would be okay with the fact that she delighted in crude humor. She wonders if she would actually marry someone as obese and… unpolished as Peter Griffin. She’d love him though, she’s sure of it. She just couldn’t tell anyone this, ever.

It’s too bad, because poor rotund Fred from the clinical trials division was madly in love with Vera, and though everyone else at work knew she’d reciprocate in an instant, they enjoyed watching the small awkward dramas between them far too much to clue either of them in.


Well, that was fun. (Now I know not to quit my job and take up creative writing.) Writing non-stock characters is MAD HARD, and I’m not sure how much I’ve succeeded. I do know I really like Vera though, and wouldn’t mind spending more time with her. Maybe, if I’m patient enough, she’ll tell me exactly what she needs my thesis to do for her? That would be a start.

  1. Vera desperately needs to connect – maybe she could teach children to cook? Or people her own age. No matter, as I said in class, I totally believe in the “cooking with strangers” idea. Cooking creates a very safe environment far from the chat roulette concept, I believe. I honestly don’t think the amounts of truly naked chefs will be a big issue for you :)

    Personally, I also feel a cooking program is compelling – Fondue Tuesday, or Carrot Thursday, Soup Sunday etc. This allows me to get excited about something, have a theme to talk about, and concrete steps to focus on to avoid awkward silence!

    - Kristin Breivik (Nov 30 at 2:54 am)