Recently I was lucky enough to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe at the Old Vic. This is one of my all time favourite plays and has been for a long time. I’m a true Shakespeare nut, to the point where I literally flinch if a line is missed in Much Ado about Nothing. And while this modern play naturally takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s something very different.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a tragicomedy by Tom Stoppard and it explores a plethora of themes including existentialism, absurdism, choice and free will. There have been many interpretations, including the idea that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in fact dead and what we see is a limbo of their own creation. It’s an incredible piece of work which I encourage everyone to see or read.
Aside from all the philosophy, it got me thinking about minor characters. And how minor characters deal with being minor characters. I should probably warn of spoilers ahead, but given Hamlet is roughly 400 years old, I’m going to say you’ve fully warned already.
But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern isn’t about Hamlet. Hamlet is, in fact, a minor character in Stoppard’s play. What we are watching is the titular characters’ perspective of Hamlet as are they are hopelessly and fatality dragged along in the wake of the play’s action which all happens off-stage.
Interestingly, the main characters seem semi-aware of their dilemma. They can’t remember anything before the play started, they are so insignificant to the story their names are interchangeable, even with each other. And the only knowledge they have of their own backstory comes from the dialogue of the other characters.
This awareness in a character is nothing new. I recently read Redshirts by John Scalzi (a must read for any Star Trek fans) and a brilliant example of self-aware characters. ‘Breaking the fourth wall’ is the extreme use of this theme, like Frank Urquhart/Underwood in House of Cards. Or Deadpool. But you’ll note that fourth wall breakers tend to be heroes of their stories. Main characters have a certain control; they make choices and their actions drive the plot. Not so for our hapless minor characters.
The line that stands out to me is near the end of the play when the pair attempt to work out what’s happening in the hopes of establishing their purpose in the story.
Guildenstern: Guildenstern and Rosencrantz taking Hamlet-
Rosencrantz: who also offended the king –
Guildenstern: and killed Polonius –
Rosencrantz: offended the king in a variety of ways –
Guildenstern: to England. (Pause.) That seems to be it.
Rosencrantz: Incidents! All we get is incidents! Dear God, is it too much to expect a little sustained action?!
If you were to track the progress of a minor character in any work of fiction, that would be the entirety of their lives. Jumping from incident to incident, trailing the hero. They’re denied the chance to make character-defining choices. We don’t care what the tavern owner’s son is doing while the hero slays the dragon. Minor characters are tools; they allow your hero an audience to expound to or are there simply to move the plot along.
So it got me thinking. Are there any minor characters in well-known stories who’s time has come? Imagine the stories we could discover if we broke these minor characters free of their current narratives and gave them their own story.
It’s inspired me to go back and look at The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde from Lady Victoria Wotton’s perspective – a character so minor she’s barely ever mentioned in plot summaries. But I’m convinced that the wife of Lord Henry “Harry” Wotton must be a fascinating woman indeed.
Can you think of any neglected minor characters who could have fascinating stories to tell? Have you ever used one of these in your own work? Let me know!