Heads. Heads. Heads. Heads. Heads.

by | March 24, 2014 | General | 11 comments

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).

Kathleen Bradean

Kathleen Bradean’s stories can be found in The Best Women’s Erotica 2007, Haunted Hearths, Garden of the Perverse, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 6, and She’s On Top in print. Clean Sheets and The Erotica Readers and Writer’s Association websites have also featured her stories. Writing as Jay Lygon, her stories can be found in Inside Him, Blue Collar Taste Tests, Toy Box: Floggers, and the novels Chaos Magic, Love Runes, and Personal Demons. Read more about Kathleen Bradean at: KathleenBradean.Blogspot.com www.JayLygonWrites.com


  1. Amanda Earl

    i LOVED Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. we studied it in high school, along with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I blame such works for my irreverence. i love the idea that good secondary characters have something else going on. thanks for the tip 🙂

    • Kathleen Bradean

      Tom Stoppard loves language and it shines through in RAGAD. The tennis court scene is a writer's delight.

      Confession: I laugh the hardest and longest when the leader of the acting troupe says something like "It's a real bloodbath. Eight dead," about the mummer's version of Hamlet. Rosencrantz says "No, only six." Next shot – his and Gildenstern's characters in the mummer's version being hanged. (and there's the other two) But I have an odd sense of humor.

  2. Jeffrey Ricker

    I just saw Stoppard's Arcadia last week. Insanely good. I'll have to add RAGAD to the to-watch list.

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    I haven't thought about RAGAD for ages, but also studied it in high school. Brilliant – though I think I appreciate it more now, after your post.

    One thing about romance, especially romance series – secondary characters matter. Very frequently, they will get their own books later in the series. That's a hard concept for me to get my head around, though I recently did create a secondary character who deserves her own story.

    • kathleenbradean@yahoo.com

      I wish someone would film both with the same cast so it would truly be seamless. The film version of RAGAD, alas, has a mediocre Hamlet. He's far too Laurence Oliver for current audiences.

  4. Jean Roberta

    One thing I admire about the late Margaret Laurence (Canadian novelist) is the strength of her secondary characters, each of whom could star in his/her own plot. Re Shakespeare's plays, I think the surrealism of RAGAD inspired a whole series of dreams I had, loosely based on Shakespeare plays. (Midsummer Night's Dream raises the uncomfortable question of whether love can be caused by a "spell," and how else the messy quadrangle of 2 men & 2 women could have been sorted out differently, and all the plays play with gender roles – numerous "female" characters played by male actors, often "disguised" as young men in the plays.)
    I'm sure I'm not the only one who has tried to create a secondary character to support the plot, but he/she develops a whole personality. 🙂

    • kathleenbradean@yahoo.com

      I've attempt and failed a Twelfth Night inspired piece. One of these days I'll make it work.

  5. Jean Roberta

    Oh yes! Keep trying. I wrote a short 3-woman lesbian spoof that I called "Thirteenth Night," then expanded & revised that into "A Well-Placed Pinch," which is in Shakespearotica: Queering the Bard. But there are characters & subplots in Twelfth Night that I haven't touched. It's hard even to stage convincingly, since 2 characters are a brother & sister who apparently look identical (aspects of the same person?).

    • kathleenbradean@yahoo.com

      I wonder sometimes if the audience "forgot" the actor was male and got swept along with the part, or if it was the broadest wink ever to the audience, basically saying "I know you know these are boys playing maids, You're smarter than my characters who think these are real women. Now here's a joke within a joke for you – he's going to pretend to be a maid pretending to be a lad."

  6. Jean Roberta

    Very likely. However you perceive the characters, Twelfth Night seems to be the queerest of Shakespere's plays, and there is gender-bending in alll of them.

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