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What Role Do You Want to Play?

A CHARACTER in a book by Flaubert, or perhaps someone even smarter, like La Rochefoucauld, said that most people would never fall in love if they had not first read about it in a book. Like many tasty ideas, it's an emulsion of true and not-so-true but points us toward an illuminating insight: We can't be the people we are without drawing on sources outside ourselves.

If you were the only creature in the universe that ever lived --- say, an interstellar space octopus that floated through the void eating hydrogen --- you couldn't have a character. You couldn't be a dad, goofy or otherwise, without children, a wacky next-door neighbor without somebody next door, a quarterback without teammates or a nerd without a QB with a locker to stuff you in.

You might think you could be a go-getter spaceopus, eating a little more hydrogen today than yesterday, but you'd be wrong: Without slacker spaceopi to contrast with, such an increase would have no way to constitute go-getting rather than simple acceleration.

That's why a recent study by Will Radford and Matthias Gallé at the Xerox Research Center Europe --- " 'Roles for the Boys?' Mining Cast Lists for Gender and Role Distributions Over Time" --- illuminates the issue of "bildung," or self-formation. Dr. Radford and Dr. Gallé --- who I will assume are a buddy team consisting of a cocky athlete-turned-scientist whose love for the ladies sometimes gets him in trouble and a wisecracking aesthete whose cynicism masks a romantic core --- have data-mined the Internet Movie Database for the most popular roles in TV and movies over the past 115 years.

By doing so, they have revealed something about the sort of people our culture gives us the option to be.

According to the study, the number of roles grew to around 180,000 today from around 20,000 in 1920. Looking beyond the data, you can see a society that has transformed from one in which people are either playing it straight or rebelling in preset ways --- a barfly or henchman in an early black-and-white Western --- to a world with greater possibilities of self-expression. In short, a society that went from cops and robbers to narrators and contestants.

From 1900 to 1920, some of the most popular roles were wife, husband, daughter and policeman. What leaps out is how constricted they were --- with the technical limitations of silent film, as down the middle and easy to read as stickers, like a policeman chasing Charlie Chaplin's Tramp through city streets.

From 1920 to 1940, sound offered more refinement. Justice required a policeman and a detective (as in "The Thin Man," 1934), and the world associated with Prohibition gave us dancer, barfly and bartender, or Will Stanton's uncredited role as "curious passer-by at Fu's Funeral" from "The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu."

By the mid-20th century, roles became noticeably more varied and self-conscious. Who we are started to be defined by how we present ourselves, often in the media: panelist, sports newsreader and weather forecaster.

The 1960-80 period took us through social upheaval and its aftermath, from the counterculture to the Reagan counter-reformation. The Western "townsman," peeking out of a saloon door to witness a gunfight, is displaced by a model --- like a bra model, as in "The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom" (1968) --- or a member of the Short Circus, from "The Electric Company."

It also took us into the era of daytime dramas. Several new roles in the period were soap opera characters, including Paul Williams, Jack Abbott and Victor Newman from "The Young and the Restless." Philosophers have wondered whether identity lies in body or memory: The logic of soaps shows us neither must be present, as the same character can be both recast and get amnesia. This Buddhist approach to identity allows a character to remain while his roles shift.

Paul Williams, for example, started his career as an S.T.D.-spreading bad boy, but then became a private investigator, a mental patient and father to a psychotic son. Each identity is a generic role, but the role changes as society does. Like sands through the hourglass.

Once we are aware of the role we play, we can change it, so self-consciousness leads to variety. Thus the 1980-2000 period showed a proliferation of cultural roles like musical director, lexicographer and interviewer. You can understand this cultural shift by comparing the "girl" role in the films "King Kong" (1933 --- the good one) and "The Cabin in the Woods" (2012). In each film, the ingénue is pretty, self-assured and engaged in the classic struggle of girl versus giant monster. The heroine of "Kong," Ann, responds viscerally; while in the paw of a giant ape, she does nothing but scream and faint. But in "Cabin," Dana is a self-conscious human who reflects on the role society has handed to her and ultimately rejects it. As it happens, neither option --- terror or self-reflection --- does much good, because the monsters these women fight are so very large. For example, when you hear King Kong is a "giant gorilla," how big do you imagine he is? Eight feet? Nine feet? Think again. He's immense.

From 2000 to 2020, the grabbiest new role is that of zombie. This popularity raises a disquieting, not to say humiliating, question: Why should we let TV producers play a role in our self-formation? After all, we know TV shows exist to sell products or subscriptions to Netflix. But if not from television or the movies, where are we supposed to get the roles we play to fill the fleeting days of our lives? Are we expected to be able just to tear them out of our brains, like zombies?

As luck would have it, communication today goes two ways: The Internet combines features of the Gutenberg-to-TV era (it's massive and global) with those of oral culture (it's do-it-yourself). On social media sites like Twitter, video distribution sites like YouTube and fan fiction sites like fanfiction.net, we create our own kind of characters and new possibilities for who we want to be and share them with like-minded people.

With that in mind, here are some more roles I'd like to propose: writer of newspaper articles that contain coded messages for the location of a priceless Egyptian sarcophagus, jealous peccary owner and robot gigolo repairwoman.

If you include enough of them in your fan fiction, vines and Twitter posts, maybe they can get into Dr. Radford and Dr. Gallé's new characters list for 2020-40.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 26, 2015, on page SR9 of the New York edition with the headline: What Role Do You Want to Play?. Order Reprints|Today's Paper
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