What hats are your characters wearing?

Each of us, in our daily lives, wear a whole slew of hats. Not physical hats, mind you… though if you’re as cool as I am, then you’ve got that covered, too.

Each ‘hat’ is a role we play– and those roles change depending on where we are or what we’re doing. Each one comes with its own language, its own taboos, its own dress code, and so forth.

A few examples:

Dress Code: When I’m hanging out in the offices at Nuvo, I often wear my beloved shark hat. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, where we can have a lot of fun and be plenty silly, as long as we get everything to press by deadline. The school where I used to work was also pretty laid back, but I was often teaching students who were only a handful of years younger than I was. If I wanted to be taken seriously at all by the parents and higher-ups, I needed to dress professionally. And that means no shark hat.

Language: When I’m on Tumblr, or talking to someone who frequents Tumblr, I’ll often make cracks about all the feels. Say that to a non-tumblrite, and you’ve only got a slim chance that they have any idea what you’re talking about.

Role within a group: When I’m in a group with my friend Kya, I’m the Hermione to her Harry Potter. She has all the most creative ideas, the most thorough plans, and the natural charisma to convince people to do just about anything. ¬†When I’m in a group with less dominant personalities, though, I’m often the one who takes charge, mostly because I’m good at pretending I know what’s going on.

Physical description: I spent a good portion of my life hanging out with my big brother and his friends, each of them megalithic in their own right. I was the itty bitty little sister. So imagine my surprise when I started hanging out with a wider variety of people, and discovered that 6′ is considered tall in most circles.

Taboo: When I’m out with school friends, I have no problem at all swearing up a storm, especially when I’m emotionally invested in a subject. When I’m in the room with a toddler, I wouldn’t dream of using that sort of language.

Even before the internet and the age of a billion TV channels, everybody had a whole mess of roles to play: The same woman could be a teacher to her students, a mother to her children, a daughter to her parents, and each of those roles typically demanded dramatically different behaviors. It’s all the same personality, but different aspects are emphasized based on who we’re with.

What sets us apart

Typically, the quality that defines a person in a given group is the quality that sets them apart: I was the short one among my brother’s friends, the teacher is the adult among children, and so forth.

Gimli from The Lord of the Rings is The Dwarf… but he wouldn’t be if he was back home, surrounded by other dwarves. He’d be Gloin’s boy, or the kid who can’t hold his liquor, or the dude who can totally take an orc’s head off in one chop. He’s only The Dwarf because he’s the only one in the Fellowship.

We see the same in the show Castle: Among the detectives of the NYPD, Rick Castle is the resident writer. At the poker nights he shares with the rest of the NYT Best Selling Authors, he’s the group’s amateur detective. To his overly responsible daughter, he’s the Cool Dad. To his flighty mother, he’s the voice of reason.

I bring up Castle¬†specifically because it does a great job of showing characters from each of his social circles interacting– and depending on which group is driving the scene, our protagonist is wearing a different hat. When his mother is leading his daughter on a crazy adventure, for example, he assumes the role of a responsible adult to counterbalance his mom’s kookiness.

Back to writing

Like real life people, our characters also tend to run in different circles– each of which brings out a different part of their inner selves. So here’s a writing exercise for you:

Figure out what crowds your character runs in– work, family, hobbies, and so forth. What role does s/he play in each one? What behaviors and vocabulary end up sticking around even after s/he has removed that hat? What sets him/her apart from each crowd?

What circles do you run in? Which hats do you wear when you’re in those circles? And which hats are your characters wearing? Let us know in the comments!