by Kathleen Bradean
I was thinking about characters. In particular, secondary characters.
Someone, and I wish I could remember who, said that good secondary characters
have something else going on. Meaning that they don’t sacrifice their entire
lives to serve the plot. Maybe Samwise Gamgee did that for Bilbo Baggins in
Lord of the Rings, but your secondary characters are going to seem more
realistic if they know other people beside the main character, and have their
own goals and ambitions. If they have a name, they have a fate, and it shouldn’t
necessarily be tied to the main character’s fate.
Tom Stoppard wrote an entire play around the problem of secondary
characters. In Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead*, Stoppard follows two secondary characters from William
Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The title comes from a throw-away line about their fates
near the end, the last they are heard about. From the beginning of Stoppard’s
play, the two are aware that they’re in an unnatural world. The one we think is Rosencrantz flips a
coin over and over and it always comes up heads. They vaguely remember being
summoned, but nothing before that. They know they are on their way somewhere
but aren’t sure why. They aren’t even sure which of them is Rosencrantz and who
is Guildenstern. This reflects the scene in Hamlet where the king and queen use
different names for them. It isn’t until much later, when Hamlet names them, that
they know for sure.
Because they have no agency outside serving the plot, they
are trapped by it. At the end, the one we think is Guildenstern comments that
there must have been a point where they might have said no, but they missed it.
He thinks it must have been near the beginning. Truthfully, it was before the
play began and they were brought into existence to fill a specific purpose.
Along their way, they fulfill one of their purposes in the
play Hamlet, and that is to meet the troupe of players who will help Hamlet
confront his uncle with the murder of this father. They run into this troupe
many times in RAGAD. They even watch them perform a mummer’s play version of
Hamlet, including their own deaths. The leader of the troupe offers many
cryptic warnings, but the two have no ability to flee Elsinore. They will play
out their parts.
This is the truly clever thing about this play (other than
the dialog, and the conceit, and everything, actually. When Hamlet says, “Words.
Words. Words,” he could have been praising Stoppard). When R&G are onstage
(in Hamlet), the scenes in RAGAD are the scenes from Hamlet. But when they leave
the stage in Hamlet, we follow them rather than the other characters. We get an
accounting of their time. The problem is, they have no idea what to do with
that time or even why they have been summoned to Elsinore by the king and queen
because they are, even in this play, mere secondary characters whose only
reason to exist is to serve the plot of Hamlet. Even their deaths have no
significance. Their deaths happen off stage and are merely noted by a line—in Hamlet.
For poor R&G, they must see it through to the end, because they are
offstage in Hamlet but always onstage for RAGAD, a play in which their deaths
are a scene.
I watched both a full production of Hamlet and Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern Are Dead for this article. (I suggest a full version of Hamlet
because, to misquote a line from Amadeus, ‘There are just as many words,
Majesty, as required. Neither more nor less.’ A truncated version of Hamlet is
a crime against art. This version with David Tennant is very good. If you only
know him as The Doctor from Doctor Who, you’re in for a treat.) If you have
time, I strongly suggest watching both within a short time frame to better appreciate how they
interlock. You can learn a lot about secondary characters, if only to realize
that when they walk offstage in your story, they should have a background,
memories, an identity—everything that makes them a whole person in their own
story. Imagine how dull it is for your secondaries to wait in suspension for
your MC to walk through the door. Or even to give them a name.
*If you have not seen it, please watch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Are Dead. Tom Stoppard is amazing. (You can view it in parts on YouTube as a last resort).