Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Deuteragonists and Tritagonists

This morning, I received a complaint email that was so absurd, my first thought was, "Ha, ha, April Fool." Then I realized the sender was in earnest. My day has not improved from there.

The Great Inbox Spring Cleaning continues, and I'm averaging revision letters on three novella manuscripts a day. I've just finished reading my last lonely manuscript from 2007 -- I've actually read it twice now, and just have to let it simmer before I contact the author. After this one, everything I read will be from January and February, though I probably have fewer than two dozen manuscripts pending from that time period. So at my current pace, I should be into March manuscripts sometime next week. Just saying, in case any of you are wondering about the status of your submission. (This all assumes that I will be able to remain focused on submissions for the next week or two. That's never a safe assumption.)

Deuteragonists and Tritagonists

It's probably fitting to post this on April Fools' Day, because if you're unfamiliar with these terms, you might just think I'm pulling a prank. I'm not. Google the words if you need evidence.

This ties in to my intermittent mullings on the nature of protagonists. Most of our literary theory evolved from dramatic theory, and most of that came to us from the ancient Greeks, or was at least built on notions that originated with the ancient Greeks.

But their notion of a play was very different from ours. In the beginning, there was a chorus. No actors, no monologues, no spotlights. Just an assortment of people on the stage, singing or chanting in unison, maybe with a bit of dancing or rhythmic motion similar to a marching band or drill team's synchronized movement. The truth is, we're not exactly positive how the chorus behaved. None of us were around to witness one, and scholars debate exactly what a chorus did and how they did it. But we're pretty sure that whatever they did, they did it as a team.

Then one day, somebody got clever and suggested that a solitary person could stand in front of the chorus and dramatize their song. If they sang, "He fell to his knees and wept," then this poor schmoe would fall to his knees and weep. They gave him some lines to speak and even let him interact with the chorus at times. He remained on stage for the duration of the show, as did the chorus.

This fellow was known as the protagonist, from proto- meaning first, and agon meaning gathering: he was the first in the gathering on the stage. He became a central figure in Greek drama, and eventually, a dude named Aeschylus figured out that if you could have one actor in front of the chorus, then why not have two?

This second actor was the deuteragonist. The funny thing about the deuteragonist is that his role depended on the story. He could play one role as did the protagonist and function like a sidekick -- a Robin to the protagonist's Batman, a Watson to his Holmes. Or he could play several roles, switching masks and wigs and props to indicate that now he was the angry father, and now the trembling maid. His role, in either case, was to help the audience better understand the protagonist's actions. You could say he provided a context for the protagonist's acting.

At some point they also added a third actor, the tritagonist. But instead of adding a fourth, fifth, and so on, they stopped with the tritagonist and developed a few theories to support that -- all dramas are triangles composed of three interacting and competing elements; stable alliances are rendered unstable by the introduction of a third party; between parents, a child; between parent and child, a spouse; between lovers, a parent; and so on.

Even though these theories make a lot of practical sense, they neatly overlook the fact that the three actors on stage frequently played multiple roles. So it wasn't really the presence of three human characters that created drama. It was the three levels of character:
  1. the protagonist, who always had to be on stage,
  2. the deuteragonist, who functioned like a sidekick -- literally, a second to the protagonist's first -- and was important, but not omnipresent, and could be more than one character
  3. the tritagonist, who was basically anyone else they need for the story to make sense.

What's missing from that list? The antagonist. I'm just going to float that idea out there for a moment. We'll come back to it eventually.

For now, I want to make a point about the way these characters were constructed. The protagonist was always a fully formed character. The deuteragonist could be either fully formed (when he was the sidekick) or a placeholder (when he had to change roles frequently). The tritagonist was usually a placeholder.

The placeholder characters were signaled by a change in props or masks. A sword and shield signaled a warrior. A mask with horns signaled a bull.

To this day, we use a similar form of character props to cue the audience about placeholder characters. Except, instead of giving the warrior a sword, we give the night desk clerk at the hotel a nervous shuffle in his gait. We give Aunt Flossie an aluminum crochet hook, and we make Uncle Ted a bit deaf. Our "props" are not symbolic (sword = warrior, horns = bull), but emblematic (that is, specific to one character instead of generic of a type of character).

So when our protagonist finds at the crime scene a bright blue aluminum crochet hook, we think, Aunt Flossie was here. Of course, it could be anyone's crochet hook. But because dramatic theory likes things to be neatly tied up, an emblem of a character must always be emblematic of that particular character. If horns indicate a bull, you have to use something other than horns to indicate the devil. If the crochet hook becomes emblematic of Aunt Flossie, than the blood-covered one in chapter seventeen had better belong to her.

It's a neat trick, and it's one that can be used pretty easily for secondary characters. (Get it? deuter = second. We still use the same basic language to talk about drama, except that now we call deuteragonists secondary characters.) But with secondary characters, the reader will want something more than a mere emblem. They'll want the emblem to become fleshed out a bit. There's got to be more to Aunt Flossie than a yarn hobby.

So, do you think it will help you develop your characters if you first decide where they fit on the -agonists scale?



Dave Shaw said...

Oh, dear - now I'm going to be agonizing over my -agonists.

Sorry - I had to say it first, although I'm afraid of the chorus coming after me now.

On a serious note, there's a 3-part novella that I'm critting for another member of my crit group in which the protagonist is the only fully-fleshed character. There's one that's part secondary and part antagonist, and all the others are virtual cardboard cutouts for which 'tritagonist' is a good label. The author obviously thought this stuff through quite well.

Edittorrent said...

No chorus will follow you, just some editor chick with a pen that would like to be mightier than a sword. ;)

"Antagonist" has no place on our list of -agonists, though. I'll explain why, when I get around to my next post, but for now, think of your friend's character as a deuteragonist with occasionally hostile motives. The beauty in deuteragonists is that the writer gets to control how deeply the character is developed. That flexibility is powerful.


Edittorrent said...

What's intriguing is... until after Shakespeare, men (or boys) always played the women's roles. So you could have Medea as protagonist, and it would be some guy with a mask. :)

Edittorrent said...

So what happens when a secondary character takes on too much centrality? Maybe we've already seen that in our own work-- the hero's best friend, I've noticed, often turns out to be cool and intriguing. Think of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, for example.

Speaking of the classics :0-- I remember that in Antigone, Creon (her uncle) really seemed to be the one with the tragic journey. She didn't change much from beginning to end, but he's the one who is punished for acting rashly and suffers the great tragedy (losing his son and niece). I wonder if that's a deuteragonist who got too prominent. Of course, Sophocles might say he's the antagonist... after all, the play is not called "Creon"!

Edittorrent said...

Well, but why not have a deuteragonist with a hard arc? Protagonists don't *have* to change. The strength of the arc is not what defines the character's centrality. Neither is the amount of interest a reader/audience might have in a given character -- the Greeks would not have objected to lesser characters with intriguing personalities any more than Shakespeare would have ditched the witches in Macbeth because they're only onstage briefly.

But I think the flexibility of the modern narrative presents its own kind of tyranny. In trying to wrangle all the options, we sometimes devise "rules" that put artificial limitations in place. Who says a secondary character can't temporarily dominate a scene? Where's the danger in that?

I smell some blog posts in this topic.


Dave Shaw said...

Secondary characters have to dominate scenes sometimes, and I don't just mean the trivial case where the protagonist isn't present. Just as one example, consider the occasional scene where Nell Fenwick rescues Dudley Do-Right rather than the other way around. Heck, even Horse got to dominate a scene once or twice. It seems to me that if that's what the story needs, that what you should do.

Edittorrent said...

Excellent. Bonus points to Dave for a Dudley Do-Right reference. :D


Dave Shaw said...

OOO, bonus points!

Can I get more for a question? (On-topic, of course!) Is the protagonist Rocky, Bullwinkle, or both?