17 April 2013

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want something

by Robert Lopresti

I hope you people aren't sick to death of hearing about my work in progress, alias The Novel.   I keep finding things related to it that our relevant to our subject, which I am assured is Wriitng Mystery Fiction.

And honestly, writing about it helps me.  In the process of writing about it I keep learning things I didn't know.

For example, This is my first attempt to write a book from multiple viewpoints - a thought that didn't occur to me until I started to write this piece - and so this week I have been doing character checks.  In other words I have traced Mickey in each chapter he appears, to see if his personality and verbal mannerisms are consistent throughout.  once Mickey is clear, then I move on to Deedee, and so on.

Most of the time everything works fine, but I have made a few nasty discoveries.  One character was  so completely out of, uh, character in a single chapter that I decided it was easier to replace him in that scene with a newly invented guy, rather than rewriting the dialog.

But there was another more interesting surprise.  I should explain that I started my hunt with the minor characters, the ones who only appear in a few places.  Everything there went easily enough,  but when I moved to the mid-level characters, those people who appear in, say, a quarter or more of the chapters, I had a very odd sensation.

It was as if I were seeing the entire story from their points of view.  Yes, that's what multiple viewpoint implies, but this felt as if I was reading a different book, a short novel about, say, Adrianna, or Henry, when I know that isn't what I have written.  (And this being the kind of novel it is, several of those shorter one-character books end suddenly with a bullet.)

I don't know if you have seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard's absurdist, existentialist comedy.  Basically we see Hamlet from the viewpoint of two minor characters.  At the proper places Hamlet and Polonius and the rest of the Denmark gang stroll onto the stage and our unlikely heroes say their appointed lines, but the rest of the time they stand around, bewildered, wondering what they are supposed to be doing.  They do have a long unBarded conversation with, appropriately enough, the troupe of players.

And that got me thinking about Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, one of my favorite near-mystery novels.  (There is a mysterious death, and many issues to investigate, but that isn't the focus.)  The title refers to a concept in Scandanavian opera (an artform which, I assure you, is not mentioned again in the book).  A singer could specialize in performing the part of hero, villain, heroine, or confidante, or he could specialize in all the other roles, which were summarized as Fifth Business.  In other words, the narrator of the novel didn't consider himself to be the main character of his own life.

One more connection, if I may.  I have often said that the reason Elmore Leonard is such a great writer is that he convinces you that each person in his books thinks he or she is the main character.  When working on this piece I finally asked myself what the hell I meant by that glib statement.

And here is my answer.  Leonard's characters aren't just standing around like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern waiting to be spoken to.  Each of them wants something.  They have goals and they firmly believe the story is about their efforts to achieve them.

I think it was David Mamet in his book on screenwriting who said in every scene every character must want something.

Right now, what I want is to go back to my novel and attend to some people's needs.


  1. Rob, it is my opinion (this AM, it may change by PM) that everyone wants something, and yet I never actually sat down and figured out what my minor characters want. I can identify with the work you're doing now because, since some folks in my series have heavy southern accents as well as occasional repeated grammatical errors) I have to go back and check individual speaking patterns. I'm eager for you to finish The Novel so we can read it.

  2. I once graced the stage as Rosencrantz...or was it Guildenstern? Does it matter? One of them anyway. I'm certain that my character must have wanted something, though I can't remember what it might have been--a bigger role maybe? I do recall the director saying that every character should have a motivation; once this was discovered the character's words and actions would flow naturally from it. I think that's largely true, and would apply to writing, as well. I can't say that it's a maxim I have always adhered to though. I get lazy and cheat sometime.

  3. I really appreciated the insight, resulting from the epiphany of realizing a full experience of the storyline from non-central character viewpoint. I don’t think I had previously considered that idea in great enough depth.

    Great stuff, Rob!


  4. (1) I love Tom Stoppard; (2) I own a copy of "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern", the one with Gary Oldman and Richard Dreyfus; (3) R&G opened my eyes years ago to the idea that every character, just like every person on this planet, has a life of their own, their own ideas as to what's supposed to be happening; (4) most of the time, the characters are wrong about what is going to happen, what has happened, what will happen, what should happen. Great post, Rob!


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