The protagonist of Fences, Troy is a responsible man whose thwarted dreams make him prone to believing in self-created illusions. Troy begins the play by entertaining Bono and Rose with an epic story about his struggle with a personified Death, or Devil, character. Another example of Troy's ability to live in a fictitious world is his denial to his best friend, Bono about the reality of his extramarital affair with Alberta. Fences is largely Troy's story. What all of the play characters have in common is a complicated relationship with Troy. Troy's character creates the large and small conflicts with everyone else in Fences. Troy instigates conflict as a result of his ability to believe in self-created illusions and his inability to accept other's choices in life when they differ from Troy's own philosophy. Rose often contradicts his stories about himself and versions of what happened in the past. Troy also aggressively disagrees with Lyons' decision to be a musician and Cory's decision to play football in college, as well as Rose's habit of playing the numbers.
Troy's last name, Maxson, is an amalgamation of Mason and Dixon, after the Mason-Dixon line, the name for the imaginary line that separated the slave states from the free states. Troy's name symbolically demonstrates Troy's character as one who lives on a line between two opposing ideas. Troy's history is equal parts southern and northern, half-full of hope and half-filled with disappointment. He was once at the top of an exciting career opportunity as a ball-player that nose-dived into a life in a dead-end job.
The son of an unsuccessful sharecropper, Troy provides a bridge to the Maxson family history in the south and to the effects slavery had and continues to have on generations of black lives. The south and the north define Troy's history and this duality drives a dividing line between him and his sons, Lyons and Cory who grew up believing that they could achieve their dreams without unjust restraint. Through song and story-telling, Troy's character serves as the family grit, a traditional role in African cultures as a paternal oral historian whose stories provide an understanding of the context of their loved ones' lives.
Another duality is Troy's hypocrisy. Troy demands that his loved ones live practical, responsible lives while he has the freedom to have an affair, rebel against racist practices of his employers by protesting the limitation of black workers as lifters not drivers on the trash trucks. Troy refuses to see life in any way presented to him but the way he perceives events in his own head.
Troy Maxson is a classically drawn tragic-hero. He begins the play loved, admired and getting away with his secret affair. But eventually, Troy's death leaves many negative attributes as an inheritance for his family to sort out and accept.
Rose's name, like August Wilson's mother's name, Daisy, is the name of a flower. Flowers, seeds and planting comprise a motif that Wilson uses in Fences to represent nurturing, loving, kindness, and care because of the parallel qualities these attributes share with all living things that need nurturing to grow or change, like love and patience and forgiveness. Rose Maxson exemplifies these traits of compassion in all of her relationships, especially as a parent. Unlike Troy, Rose is a fair judge of character. She puts her faith in her husband and son and hopes for a better future while not begrudging the stagnant present situation.
Similar to characters like the Fool in King Lear or other Shakespearean plays, Gabriel is the wise fool, a character who often sounds silly or nonsensical, but who often knows more about the characters around him than they know about themselves. When he talks to his brother Troy in riddles about hellhounds and St. Peter in Act One, Scene Two, Gabe seems to observe Troy's fates with clarity. He tries, in his playful language, to warn Troy of his tragic fate.