Many years ago, I struck upon the idea of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a solo performance, where each of the secondary characters were not real people but rather manifestations of the Thane’s own psyche. The entire story, as I envisioned it, was one long inner monologue by a very confused man, struggling to rationalize his beliefs with his desires.
King Duncan represented the old way of doing things; slow, methodical, political.
Macduff represented the idealized warrior; righteous, proud, skilled, noble.
Lady Macbeth represented unbridled ambition; envious, avaricious, clawing, unfettered.
Banquo represented compromise; willing, hopeful, forward-looking.
The Witches represented chaos; confusing, enigmatic, truthful.
Beyond conversation with addled classmates and my bemused English teacher, however, this concept never really became more than a memory that I recount today. (Shakespeare himself had been dead for a few years and could not be reached for comment.)
But the idea has stuck with me ever since, and I have come to see its merits as a tool or approach to characters in many works I have written in the intervening years.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
—Macbeth, V, iii, 40
So often, when reading stories written by others—I struggle to do this with my own work, to which I am too close—I find characters that seem to float into and out of the story. They enter, perform a function in the story, and then exit, leaving almost no impression. They are simply mechanisms to move the story forward.
Now, I am not talking about the nameless, faceless characters that populate the background of pretty much every story; the extras or day-laborers of the film industry. Even if they have an action or offer the odd line, I see those characters very much on par with props.
I’m talking about the somewhat larger characters who may be central to a scene, interacting regularly and with purpose with one or more of the main characters to raise a dramatic question, but seeming to be otherwise disconnected from the rest of the story.
I ask myself (and sometimes the storyteller):
If you eliminated this character from your story and gave his or her actions/functions to another character, would your story suffer?
If the answer is no, then the character should probably be eliminated.
But sometimes the answer is yes; exactly why, however, is not always clear.
This is where I go back to my Macbeth concept.
Much as the antagonist of any story is a reflection of the protagonist, I believe there are opportunities to solidify these more nebulous characters by asking what they represent to the protagonist.
Are they alter-egos to some aspect of the protagonist’s personality, needs or wants? And if not, can they be?
I am a firm believer that we invite into our lives people who serve a purpose, who help us rationalize our places in the universe, who either soften the blow of being stuck in a mire we hate or inspire us to become more than we are. We may never be conscious of what their purposes are, but we are somehow drawn to these people and they to us.
Understand your associates and you will understand yourself.
Our lives are a web of connections, but are we the spider or the fly?
As gods of the stories we create, we have introduced specific characters into those stories for a reason, and I suspect it goes well beyond functional plot points. Rather, I feel it speaks to the nature of the protagonist or one of the other central characters.
At the very least, it is an avenue to explore when you find a character that just seems to float through your story, a character that could easily be eliminated, but for some reason, you want to keep.
Your starting point may be in figuring out what they represent to the protagonist. In the process, you may just develop a deeper understanding of your central character(s).
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