by Sarah Blake Johnson
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation: Alice replied rather shyly, “I hardly know, sir,” . . .
“You!” said the caterpillar contemptuously, “who are you?”
Few of us are as blunt as the caterpillar, perched on top of his mushroom when he and Alice first meet in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Yet, in a similar fashion, when we first meet anyone, an individual in life or a character in the pages of a book, we look for shortcuts or easy ways to understand who the individual is. We ask questions such as “Where are you from?” and “What is your occupation?” as we attempt to discern identity in a short moment.
As writers, we can also ask our characters, “Who are you?” This question is vital because their desires, their actions, and the way they think all stem from who they are—or, in some cases, who they are trying to be.
We may ask, “Who are you?” subconsciously while writing. There are also times when we consciously try to understand who our character truly is, using a variety of approaches ranging from character worksheets to writing extra scenes to even (perhaps when reaching a point of desperation) interrogating our characters. In our quest to create a realistic character, we learn everything about her, including her physical characteristics, behaviors, background, beliefs, flaws, fears, loves and hates, yearnings and desires.
Yet there is an aspect of characterization that is commonly overlooked: the roles a character plays in a story. Perhaps this is because “roles” is sometimes considered to be a dirty word (at least in some literary circles), and some writers believe that using roles is a cheap and quick way to build a flat character.
When we widen our viewpoint and look at roles as an essential element of character, we are able to consider characters and story from another, useful angle. After all, how a character plays out her roles will demonstrate character and create plot. In addition, interactions between characters reflect their beliefs about their roles; characters view each other not with a mirror or through a window, but through a prism.
Roles—an external expression of character
Roles are labels we use to define who someone is, a concrete way to describe a character. In this essay, I’m not talking about archetypical or stereotypical roles; I’m referring to the specific roles that every character plays. We often mention our own roles when we introduce or describe ourselves. For example, I might tell someone I am a writer (my occupation), a wife and mother (familial relationships), an alumna of Vermont College of Fine Arts (educational background), and an American and ex-pat (cultural and setting). These labels or roles are only the beginning of a long list of quick shortcuts I can use to explain who I am. Those who read my list of roles will make assumptions—probably both right and wrong.
So much of who we are, and who we think we are, is demonstrated by roles. This is the same for our characters. Why, then, do we so rarely use the word “roles” or examine the importance of roles in our stories?
Roles describe all spheres of a character’s life: culture, ethnicity, language, gender, and religion. Roles also include social and personal elements, such as where one was born and where one lives, hobbies, wealth or lack of wealth, occupation, family, and friends.
Some roles are permanent and others are transitory. A role may be deeply ingrained into a character’s being. A girl who is born as a middle child will always be a younger and older sister; a character who is born and raised in the United States is an American. Other roles come through the character’s interactions with others, from the environments in which the character spends time, and from the character’s unique experiences.
Whether roles are thrust upon a character or consciously chosen, these roles define the character, give readers insights into her society and world, and are linked to her desires, behaviors, attitudes, and values.
Roles and Identity
Roles spring forth from identity. Though theories of identity are the territory of the fields of philosophy and psychology, they are also useful to us, as writers, as we create characters. Because of this, I’ll take a brief foray into identity development.
Identity appears to be straightforward on the surface: It is who someone is. There are several definitions of identity, but for our purposes, we can use a simple definition. Our character’s identity is who he thinks he is, as well as how he expresses himself, and it arises from experience and the socialization processes of his environment.
As we consider our character’s identity, it can be helpful to keep three key points in mind:
1. Identity is not developed in a vacuum. Identity develops through interaction with others in the character’s physical, social, religious, and cultural environments. A writer needs to know her characters—their backgrounds, their history, and their current situation. The story’s setting, characters, and culture combine to impact how the protagonist defines herself and who she is.
2. Identity also comes from the character’s inner self. Identity includes her personality, goals, and values, as well as her own view of herself. It is influenced by her own desires and reinventions, her choices and unique life experiences, her present and past.
3. Identity is dynamic. Every individual is in the constant process of constructing and revising his or her self. Essentially, identity develops over time. A character’s identity won’t necessarily stay exactly the same throughout a book. This concept in particular is valuable in understanding our character and developing plot, especially in a novel that unfolds over a long period of time.
In some cases, a character’s identity is tied so closely to a role that if the role is taken away, the character flounders and loses part of his identity. For example, a character who defines himself as the star quarterback of his high school football team will struggle deeply if he is injured and no longer able to play.
Multiplicity of Roles
Significant characters play several roles in a story, and the mixture of a character’s roles influences how the writer and the readers view the character. After all, a character is, in essence, a combination of all her roles. The idea that a character plays several roles is useful both in story development and in understanding the nuances of the character’s identity. It also helps the writer to avoid placing a character into a confining and potentially lifeless stereotypical role. The layering effect of multiple roles creates real, vibrant, textured characters, plus it produces fertile ground for internal contradictions and struggles.
Lifelike characters play many roles, and though each role is important, those roles may change according to the character’s stage of life and the story’s setting. A character who chooses to go to college takes on the temporary role of a student, while another character who chooses to explore Europe for the summer takes on the temporary role of a traveler.
In addition, every role may carry different weight in the plot and in each scene as the character adjusts the role he plays according to his current status, situation, interaction, and desires. Just as we adjust the way we act according to the different situations we encounter, our characters step into and out of their roles. For example, in J.K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry acts very differently when he is in Snape’s classroom, where he is in the role of a student, than when he is at the Weasleys’ home, where he is in the role of a friend, or when he is playing a Quidditch match, where he is in his role of an athlete. Though all these roles are important in the story, Harry’s role as a wizard is key. An awareness of a character’s many roles can help writers bring one role into focus in one scene and switch the focus to another role at another time.
The natural interplay of a character’s roles makes the character realistic, especially at times when those roles tug a character in different directions or when the roles come into conflict with each other and force the character to make a choice. For example, a character who is forced to choose between attending a friend’s party and playing in a sports tournament will be torn between the roles of friend and athlete. Putting a character’s roles into conflict can create micro-tension, demonstrate internal conflict, and keep the reader turning pages.
Though a character plays many roles, one or two of these roles will probably be most vital to the story, so the writer needs to carefully choose these significant roles. Even when other roles rise to the surface of a scene, the roles most critical to the story will exist at all times, either on the surface or bubbling just below.
Roles and Narrative Structure
Roles are embedded at the deepest level of narrative structure, so an examination of the interplay between roles and plot can help us gain a better understanding of our characters and our story. There are infinite ways for a writer to utilize roles in a plot. I’ll examine four common possibilities here: changing roles, two contradictory roles, one primary role, and a vacillating character.
A character’s attempt to change her role, and her resulting success or failure, is at the heart of many books. The tale of Cinderella, who switched from the role of a servant to that of a princess, is an example of this type of story. In some cases a character will purposefully choose her role, perhaps because she experiences an incompatibility between her real and ideal self and between her actual and desired roles. In other instances, the role change will be forced upon the character, and she must learn how to take on her new role and her new identity.
Adolescence is a stage of life when identity development and identity confusion commonly occur, and it’s no surprise that many coming-of-age stories illustrate a character’s desire for a different role or his search for a new way of defining himself. Stories that include a life change, whether a character leaves for college or gets married or takes a new job, will place the character in a situation of switching from one substantial role to another role. This change of role might occur at the beginning or at the end of the book, or perhaps before the first page opens, but all these stories have the potential to explore themes of self-discovery or re-invention.
Two Contradictory Roles
Roles that conflict with each other in a specific situation can make an interesting scene, but a writer can create even more tension by using contradictory roles on a story level.
Hanging on to Max, a novel by Margaret Bechard, is a stellar example of this type of book. Sam, the main character, is a teen father and a senior in high school. Sam has many additional roles: son, nephew, friend, boyfriend. But tensions between the roles of father and student are, in essence, the plot.
Sam the father struggles to take care of Max, while Sam the student struggles in school and misses being the “typical seventeen-year-old guy” who spends time with a girlfriend and attends football games and parties.
Because of Sam’s situation and abilities, he is unable to act in both roles for a long period of time. The roles come with enough inherent contradictions that tough choices emerge. It is possible for a character or situation to change so drastically that the contradictory roles no longer oppose each other, but in Sam’s case, the roles of father and student cannot continue to co-exist equally. Though Sam continues to be both a father and a student, one role ultimately becomes more prominent than the other in his life.
The character who is torn between two significant roles gives the writer a natural conflict upon which to build a plot, while allowing for depth of character and inner turmoil.
One Primary Role
In what is perhaps the most common type of story, a protagonist plays one primary role that is significant to both the plot line and to her character development. This is also the type of story that is found in most genre fiction, and it can lure unsuspecting writers into a trap of stereotypes. To avoid creating flat characters, writers can use additional, supplementary character roles to move the plot forward, create suspense, and flesh out character.
Leticia, one of three viewpoint characters in Rita Williams-Garcia’s novel Jumped, is an example of a character whose primary role never wavers throughout the story. Like any well-rounded character, Leticia has many roles: student, friend, daughter, self-absorbed teen, fashion queen. Yet her primary role of a quidnunc, a passionate busybody, is the most distinct of her roles and is critical to the plot. When Leticia overhears Dominique planning to jump (beat up) Trina, the first thing she does is get on her cell phone and call up her friend Bea to tell her the news. Leticia’s role as a quidnunc is essential to the novel’s plot and theme. Her inaction allows a tragedy to occur, but Leticia never realizes that she is really involved because she sees herself only as an observer.
Since this story occurs over the course of only one school day, it is logical that the characters will have one overriding primary role. Even though one primary role is perhaps the most common usage of roles, Jumped serves as proof that this type of story can be told in a fresh and compelling manner.
In some stories, a character switches back and forth between roles. Creating a vacillating character can be risky. At their best, these characters are intriguing and complex; at their worst, they are fractured and confusing to readers.
Destiny, the main character in The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson, is a character who constantly shifts roles. An unreliable narrator, Destiny denies her parents’ deaths (for ten years) and is being treated for mental instability, so it isn’t a surprise that her identity and her roles vacillate. A character without a clear identity like Destiny is a good choice to discomfit and surprise the reader. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart is another example of a novel with a vacillating main character. In this book, Frankie takes on various roles as she manipulates and shapes the world of her boarding school. Frankie’s constantly shifting roles add uncertainty to the plot and give the story a purposefully unsettled feel.
Characters in all books play a multitude of roles, so what differentiates the vacillating character from a typical, well-rounded character? When a character vacillates, a different role is critical to each of the story’s turning points, and the character will use many roles equally over the course of the story.
In all of these examples, the character’s roles are embedded in the structure of the story and are crucial to the choices the character makes. Each character plays her roles as she makes decisions, acts, and moves the plot forward. A writer who understands her character’s roles uses this knowledge (either subconsciously or consciously) as she crafts her narrative.
Awareness and Perception
Understanding characters’ awareness and perception of their roles can help writers gain insights into character, add depth to a story, and create plot twists.
Some characters are highly aware of their roles, and they might even flaunt those roles. This type of character will be at the center of a very different sort of story than one in which a character isn’t aware of the roles he plays. When a character is unaware of his primary role in a story, his journey toward awareness may be important to his character development and to the story’s plot. Harry Potter is an example of a character who is unaware of his role at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. When Harry lets the boa constrictor out of its enclosure, he acts in his role as a wizard without knowing it. He later becomes aware of his role in a way that advances the plot and changes his self-perception.
Some characters will try to alter how others see them: They will hide or minimize their roles or put fake roles on display. This is one of the more common ways in which characters wield roles: They play a role as a way to manipulate other characters or hide their true identity. Princes or princesses in disguise are familiar examples of this type of character.
While a character’s awareness of her roles is where the writer figuratively controls the light switch—the character is either aware of her roles or she isn’t—a character’s perception of her roles is twilight and shadows, the place where things are not as they seem. Perception is a powerful tool. A character’s skewed perception of her roles creates a gap between belief and reality, and the gap that arises can create tension or humor or even plot, especially when a character views her roles differently than other characters do.
A character’s perception of her role is a window into her identity. Does she value her role? Hate it? Does she think her role is different than what it really is? A character’s self-perception can affect her actions.
In Jumped, Rita Williams-Garcia explores the gap between a character’s roles and her perception of those roles. Another viewpoint character, Dominique, views herself as a victim, but no one else sees her that way. They see her as a tough girl, basketball player, student, girlfriend, and athlete—all roles that Dominique also claims.
Dominique wants to lash back at Trina, who she felt invaded her personal space, and she also feels victimized when she is benched because one of her grades is a few points too low. She views herself as a victim through the end of the book, yet her perception that she was victimized—which is why she jumps Trina at the end of the school day—differs from how other characters and most readers will perceive her.
When a character’s view of herself isn’t in line with her real role, she might be an unreliable narrator. The gap between what a character believes and what other characters perceive is a perfect breeding ground for tension, ambiguity, and conflict.
Supporting characters’ perceptions matter too, and their perceptions will affect all of their interactions. Do other characters see the protagonist in the same role that she believes she is playing? Writers can play with characters’ differing perceptions in order to build conflict and deepen plot.
Related to perception is the important concept of status, or how most characters will view and value a role. Depending on the story’s culture and setting, some roles will be perceived as more desirable than others, and the way others treat and view a character will often reflect that character’s status.
It is natural for characters’ perceptions of themselves and others to change over the course of a story. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, Alice’s view of the Queen of Hearts changes. At first Alice is scared of the Queen, but at the end of the book, she realizes that the Queen is only a playing card. This type of change in perception is often a result of a character’s growth, and it frequently serves as a story’s turning point.
Though we don’t often consciously consider awareness and perception when we develop characters or structure stories, they can significantly influence our characters and plots. As we write our stories, we need to remember that all roles are tainted by perception.
Back to Alice:
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!” . . .
“It'll be no use their putting their heads down and saying ‘come up, dear!’ I shall only look up and say 'who am I then? answer me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I'll come up: if not, I'll stay down here till I'm somebody else . . . ’ cried Alice with a sudden burst of tears . . .
What is your character’s answer to the question, “Who are you?” Does he give you a list of roles, or does he mention one role that is most important to him? Are the roles the same ones that you, the writer, believe the character plays? How do these roles influence narrative?
Not only are roles integral to plot, but roles also affect how a character is viewed by the world and how characters view, categorize, and interact with other characters. On a macro level, roles can add meaning to story and give insight to theme. As writers we need to be aware of the dynamic part that roles can play as we develop character and craft narrative.