Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Three Actors and No More

Tritagonist—there’s a term you don’t hear much. In a Greek play, the tritagonist was the third (and least) important character. In novels, we aren’t limited in how many people we can use in a scene, so we might not think as much about the deuteragonist and the tritagonist. These characters could be anyone. When the deuteragonist is the antagonist, the tritagonist may be the sidekick to the protagonist. Or, if the tritagonist might be the antagonist or someone else.

The reason we might want to think in terms of protagonist, deuteragonist and tritagonist is that it is difficult to keep tack of more than three characters at a time. Consider the work of Agatha Christie. At times, she would have several characters in a room, such as when a murder was committed or when the killer was revealed, but during the investigative process, she often used a three character setup, one investigator talking to a couple or two investigators talking to one suspect.

Even when a scene involves four or more people, it is helpful to focus the primary conflict to three people. Imagine a classroom full of people. The teacher is talking and a young man raises his hand, “Are you saying…” The teacher responds and a young woman raises her hand, “But what about…” The teacher amends her response and now the young man has something to say again. We could throw more people into the mix, but it only leads to confusion as we try to keep up with the different points of view.

But then you consider Twelve Angry Men and it sort of blows what I’m saying out of the water. It is certainly possible to have several people actively involved in the conversation, though even with it, there are small sections where two or three are primary and the others say nothing, but the conversation moves to a different topic and a new group emerges as the primaries. In the key parts of the play, it is often two key players hashing it out, though those players change throughout the play. In a novel, it might be helpful to use a similar approach, rather than thinking we must have all of our characters talking.

No comments :