Do you like my title? I like my title. I have to admit that at times I am far to easily amused by my own antics. Anyway, there is a concept in the philosophy of self that the self is entirely defined by the roles that an individual plays in society makes up the entirety of who that individual is. A really easy way to envision this is to consider character roles in MMORPGs or D&D 4.0. There is a tendency in both of these to be identified entirely by one’s role (i.e. striker, controller, leader, tank, etc) and the ‘character’ of the character might be a piecemeal pasting of disconnected ideas over that central aspect. This sometimes happened with the 2.0 D&D class system as well where a character was incapable of changing classes. Obviously, this says less about the system itself than it does about the individual playing the character, but I think that this is something that we need to be very careful of in our writing as well. Role-based character development is a good way to wind up with flat characters.
Consider, if I create a character (let’s call him Rick) and my concept of the character is entirely based on a particular role or set of roles (for instance, let’s say that Rick is a warrior, priest, and husband) then I set myself up to intrinsically limit who and what the character can become. I’ve argued before that character development in fiction, both in pre-writing and in writing the actual story, should be a natural process. I am not Tobias the writer, Tobias the theologian, Tobias the Christian, Tobias the philosopher, Tobias the professor, Tobias the student, Tobias the boyfriend, etc, etc… honestly, I’m pretty sure I could come up with a whole page or more of these, and that itself is the problem. I do fill these roles, and in some ways these roles help to define who I am. However, I am not a Christian at church and a student at school. Nor am I simply a student christian writer theologian philosopher professor etc. Each of these roles informs my self and helps to shape my self, but that self exists apart from any one or set of these roles. Thus, when I leave school I will stop being a student (formally at least), but who I am won’t change. Similarly, if I close down the blog tomorrow and never write again, who I am doesn’t disappear, nor does the skill and creativity that is intrinsic to being a writer. Certainly, we can argue that some of that skill may ebb over time, but it doesn’t simply vanish, it ebbs in the way that any unused skill ebbs. So, the I that is my self fills out and gives meaning in ways to each of these labels (for instance, someone who meets me and learns that I am a Christian will assume certain things about Christianity because of me as well as assuming certain things about me because of Christianity), and each of these labels helps to define the I that is myself.
So, what does this mean for writing? All too often (and I catch myself doing this as well) we base our characters around a certain very limited set of roles (i.e. my character in this story is an orphan, beggar, thief) that inherently limits not only the realism of the character now, but also limits who the character can actually become in the long-run. We are more than just roles, and even if we weren’t I don’t know of anyone who only plays 3-5 roles in life. However, as a writer rushing (oh… wait… that should be a clue) to develop a character it is very easy to throw a few roles around that character’s neck and call him/her done(ish). This is a bad thing.
However, does this mean that we shouldn’t use roles at all in developing characters? Should we just forget about roles entirely? Of course not. We all play numerous roles in life, and so roles are important in some ways. For instance, Rick might be a warrior, priest, and husband. However, he is probably also a son, grandson, brother, nature lover, amateur philosopher, roller derby fanatic, etc, etc, etc. None of us is going to think through all of the roles that a character might have in a few days. At the same time, if a character’s suddenly estranged father who has never been mentioned before in any of the other three novels about him shows up in the fourth… well, as a reader I might be a little bit cynical (yes, this is an extreme example, but the same problem arises if he suddenly becomes a nature lover). Characters will grow and change over time, and their roles will change as well. However, a character should start your story with a realistic array of roles to avoid being a flat character, and you should be away of the roles that are changing and how those changes will affect the character. For instance, a character who suddenly stops being a son in the middle of a story is likely to spend some time grieving.
All this to say, keep roles in mind when your writing your characters. Consider what roles are realistic for the character, and what roles aren’t realistic for the character. Further, keep in mind how role changes will affect the character, and let the character develop roles naturally in your pre-writing. Consider that there aren’t many people who are going to tell you both their parents are dead upon your first meeting. Don’t expect your characters to do that either.