Objectives: The use of theory in research is reflected in its presence in research writing. Theory is often an ineffective presence in medical education research papers. To progress the effective use of theory in medical education, we need to understand how theory is presented in research papers. This study aims to elicit how theory is being written into general practice (GP) vocational education research papers in order to elucidate how theory might be more effectively used. This has relevance for the field of GP and for medical education more broadly. Methods: This is a scoping review of the presentation of theory in GP vocational education research published between 2013 and 2017. An interpretive approach is taken. We frame research papers as a form of narrative and draw on the theories of Aristotle's poetics and Campbell's monomyth. We seek parallels between the roles of theory in a research story and theories of characterisation. Results: A total of 23 papers were selected. Theories of ‘reflective learning’, ‘communities of practice’ and ‘adult learning’ were most used. Six tasks were assigned to theory: to align with a position; to identify a research problem; to serve as a vehicle for an idea; to provide a methodological tool; to interpret findings, and to represent an object of examination. The prominence of theory in the papers ranged from cameo to major roles. Depending on the way theory was used and the audience, theory had different impacts. There were parallels between the tasks assigned to theory and the roles of four of Campbell's archetypal characters. Campbell's typology offers guidance on how theory can be used in research paper ‘stories’. Conclusions: Theory can be meaningfully present in the story of a research paper if it is assigned a role in a deliberate way and this is articulated. Attention to the character development of theory and its positioning in the research story is important.