This article is worth reading and the TED video embedded within it worth watching. Both discuss the danger of “the single story” and the cultural and personal pitfalls such stories present. The author of the article, Kevin Hartnett, defines the single story as the simple narrative told about [children] within a family. Of course, these single stories exist outside families–they’re acquired in schools, churches, workplaces: He’s the smart one; she’s the trouble-maker; she’s the girly-girl, and so on.
Identifying the single story that is used to identify a character by peers, family, authorities is a worthwhile exercise for a writer. Having a protagonist confront that single story could be mighty useful for plot, theme, and character development.
How can the writer identify the single story (stories) a character lives with? As a writing exercise, create various scenes where friends or teachers or relatives discuss the protagonist when he/she is not there. That should help reveal how each community pegs a person. Cross community discussions are revealing too: Write a parent-teacher conference (again, with the protag not present); write a scene where the protagonist’s spiritual advisor meets a coach, or a hated neighbor meets the protagonist’s piano teacher. And so on. Use the other people in your character’s life to explore all facets of the character you are creating.