When I joined the SCA, I chose Anglo-Saxon (mostly because there was a rough competition between the Normans and Saxons in Carolingia and I felt sorry for the Saxons, then I kept pushing it back to when I could be a pagan). Finding myself in the 6th century, although I loved the idea of being from the period of the Sutton Hoo burial, I decided that it was 574, 1400 years before current time. I have continued to move along time, so it is now 615, although my persona doesn’t know that, but rather considers that she’s in Wessex ruled by Cynegils (although most of my life it was Ceol- yes, “old king Cole”). I find it useful to be able to think of historical things happening back when I was single, when I was raising my children, or when my husband just died. Similarly, I find it convenient to think of going to Pennsic as attending an annual trade fair in Lundonwick- the amount of time it would take me to travel there by wagon is about what it takes us to get to Pennsic by car. It would seem strange to me to get old and still be in the same year of history.
Remember- most of the activities at events are things like feasting, dancing, and court, or at camping events martial activities, and camping, but the SCA continues at home with costuming, calligraphy, armoring, etc. and may move into anything from making jewelry to beekeeping- wherever your interests take you. You can learn anything you want, and you don’t have to force everything to fit (that’s how we end up with Viking-samauri), a general persona may be the most adaptable (if you don’t already have a passion for some specific culture or period- if you do, go for it!).
Here are some of the questions you may want to ask yourself about your persona:
Where do you live? (what do you call it if different from the modern name?) What’s the region? the climate?
When do you live? (about what year?)
Who is your king/caliph/bishop/Pope in the time and place your persona lives? How much contact would you have had with them? Perhaps your local priest or baron/reeve?
What laws/taxes would you need to be aware of? Think marriage customs and inheritance…
What culture(s) are the people who live around you? Who are your kith and kin? (close associates and family) What obligations do these relationships entail? (In the SCA people often “adopt” other people from cultures and periods distant from their own- this can be problematic if you have a strong persona. If you interact closely with others, do collaberate on these background stories. PLEASE try to keep them reasonable, trust me, you’ll regret it later if you don’t.)
You may wish to create a family for your persona; either re-name your modern family so that you can talk about them, or invent something completely different. I find it convenient to give family a rough approximation of what they do they’re in sales, or a clerk.
If your persona is living somewhere they weren’t born- how did they get there? Why did they move?
It’s usually easiest if your persona is about your own age, and if you have a spouse or children, think about how you are going to interact if they come to events if they are not going to have that relationship with your persona. You can have fun with this, but don’t make it hard on yourself (or them). Most kids can deal with nicknames, but young ones won’t find it easy to pretend you aren’t a relative.
What is your home like? Try to get an image of what your house, or rooms would look like, where do you sleep, where do you eat? What do you light with? Write with? What materials do you use to roof with, build fences, make tableware?
What is your immediate environment like? Do you live in a town? a castle? a village? What is the local landscape like? (I picked a place and used google maps to look at the landscape). Are there rivers or good (Roman) roads nearby?
With food, what do you eat seasonally? In the summer, in the winter? How is it prepared? Would you cook, or have someone cook for you?
What work do you do on most days? What other things do you do seasonally?
Do you have any special skills or knowledge? Where and how did you learn them? (for example, what languages do you speak, are you literate?)
What do you wear? Where do your clothes come from (do you make them or buy them)? What items do you buy or trade for? Who makes those? (You will probably have more garb than your persona would have owned- it’s a game and we like garb.) But what would they have had? Did you have special clothes for dirty work or for special occasions? How about your shoes? your headcoverings? How did you wear your hair? your facial hair?
Would you wear cosmetics? Use scents? other cosmetics? What are your culture’s attitudes toward cleaning and bathing?
In the SCA we accept diversity, but would your persona have considered women inferior to men? Would they have considered Jews or Infidels or Pagans to be evil? Would they be prejudice about race? How about different heresies? Can you incorporate this in your persona play without acting like an asshole?
Does your persona believe in magic or miracles? What is your beliefs in the supernatural? In ghosts? Fairies, trolls, witches?
What medicines would you use? To whom would you turn for healing help?
Should you have servants? If yes, what sort of explanation are you going to use for their immediate absence? (unless you can convince someone how much fun it would be to play a servant. Alternately, you may find it fun to play someone else’ servant. consider it.) If your persona is a servant to an “invented” character, why are they never there? If you are playing lower class, do you need to be carrying proof of manumission? Papers giving you permission from your lord to be there?
What is your local currency? Do you have money, and if so, what do you use it for? How rich is your persona? What is the local class system?
What is your religion? (We don’t do much with this in the SCA, but it would have been a big factor in your life in period.) What religious obligations (ie.keeping Lent or kosher) would they have? Do you have a local or patron saint? (some of the lesser known saints are fun!) Would you have a relic? an amulet?
What is your race? Would it make a difference? (are you playing something different, or exploring your roots?)
How do you and the people around you tell time? Time of day? Day’s of the week, months, year? (Anno Domine was not commonly used until the 7th or 8th c.)
How do you measure distances, weight, volume? Miles, Feet, inches? weigh (Rods, leagues, tuns?)
How much will you have traveled? What kind of transportation do you use? Where do you stay when traveling? (In the SCA, what kind of tent you would have is a big question.)
What animals would your persona have around? Pets? Livestock? Do you hunt or fish?
What kind of entertainment would your persona like? Have participated in or seen?
Have there been any major historical events during your lifetime? If so, what impact did they have on you directly? Are you going to build any “non-historical” events into your back story? Look up plagues, wars, natural disasters…
What sort of things do you know that your persona doesn’t and vice versa? They weren’t stupid or ignorant, they just had a different set of information and skills. We speak English as default, would your persona have spoken French, Greek, Latin, Welsh? What languages would they know? Your persona may know how to ride a horse or drive a cart while you don’t, and it won’t come up, but knowing how to cast a horoscope, or play an instrument might, so pick skills you can dodge, fake or actually learn.
What are recent technological developments in your period and area?
When you’re picking your persona, here are some things to think about: What is it about history that drew you to the SCA? What historical movies and books have you seen and read, and which characters in them appealed to you? Do you prefer ones that humorously point out the differences between the modern world and old times (like Mel Brooks and Monty Python) or do you prefer the action or philosophy of earlier times, or just the costumes? Costumes (and armor) are probably where you’ll be investing most of your time and money, so picking a period of garb in which you feel comfortable and attractive is far more important than a certain skill set or philosophy. People like you were born in every period and figured out how to deal with it.
Of course there are more things you can explore, and you don’t need to know the answers to all of these, but thinking about them can help you get into your persona, and some people are happy with their persona being “a herald or calligrapher in the Kingdom of _your kingdom’s name here_”. But I find Arastorm’s perspectives different than Tchipakkan’s and often enlightening.