A few days staying with my mother require me to be paraded around the village, being shown off to friends.
I am taken to her oldest friends first: Husband was close to my father, Wife is my mother’s best friend, and something of a surrogate mother to me. They are Scottish, loving, hospitable.
My mother sits primly on the sofa while the tea set is laid out, her little legs crossed at the ankles, not quite touching the floor. We are having the best china, and a freshly baked Victoria Sandwich cake, set on a glass cake stand and dusted with icing sugar. This is a proper English afternoon tea.
I notice how polite my mother is being. The way she holds the fork as she eats her cake so delicately. The way she plucks at her napkin. The way she stirs her tea with her teaspoon, holding the end like a pen, making the prescribed figure of eight with the bowl, just so. I notice the way she nods, agrees, doesn’t initiate conversation. I realise she is being a Good Girl. Just as her own mother taught her, back before the War, she is behaving politely in order to be accepted.
Our hosts are playing roles too. She is the Hospitable Hostess, asking kind questions, offering more cake. Her husband is sitting enthroned in his armchair, interjecting occasionally with amusing quips or information, partly the Wise Sage, and partly the Jester – he always played the Jester to my father’s Straight Man when I was a child.
Then their middle daughter arrives, a beautiful woman a little older than I am, with a grown-up family and a business of her own. As soon as she walks into the house, though, she adopts the role of Mischievous Daughter, stealing a donut from the kitchen, helping herself to a cup of tea (without a saucer), lounging in an armchair and making us all laugh.
I glance at my mother. She is laughing politely. Still being the Good Girl.
And me? Well, I am the Entertainment. Which is another way of saying that I am being the Good Girl too. Pleasing my mother by being polite and charming her friends. Being a credit to her. Displaying the manners she taught me. Sitting up straight, holding my teacup correctly, watching my language, and wishing profoundly that I could play the Mischievous Daughter too, which would be a lot more fun, and more like who I really am.
We all play social roles, in company, with family, with friends, with strangers, colleagues or acquaintances. Our roles change according to those we are with, and to circumstance. Sometimes we even change roles within a single situation. This is not necessarily being inauthentic, or even manipulative. It is the way human beings function socially together, as all animals who live in groups do. It began as a means of survival, but today has become a complicated social pas de deux.
And why am I talking about it? Well, because if we play roles, what about the characters we write? You may know who your protagonist is, you may have written his back story in detail, and know how he might respond in a given situation, but have you thought about the roles he might play? Does he play roles to fit in, or does he reject them? Or does he continually play different roles to get what he wants, to manipulate others? And if he does the latter, how are you, the writer, going to keep track of who he is underneath those roles?
Begin to observe social encounters going on around you as dispassionately as you can. Can you see what social roles are being played? Who is being submissive, funny, polite, in order to win friends? Who is refusing the engage with the social dance? Who is asserting their dominance as Alpha Male or Female? Who is the real person under the role? What are their motivations for choosing the role they do?
Remember to observe without judgement. This is not about values. This is about behaviour.
Spend some time writing down the roles you observe, and reflecting on them, in your writers notebook. Think especially about what lies underneath the role, what event might cause a person to adopt one role rather than another.
Write a scene about some characters you are currently working with. What roles could be played here? What non-verbal behaviour communicates that role – or betrays what is going on underneath? See if you can write your characters functioning at two levels, the role they play, and the real person behind the role. Explore this difficulty where you can to make your characters more three dimensional.
Meanwhile, I am going back to contemplating the idea that my mother, my dominant, matriarchal mother, could actually play the Good Girl, because its not an idea I have ever entertained before, and its going to take a while to get my head around it!