Inspiration – Major Minor Characters

William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is about so much more than just the Denmark Prince.
William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is about so much more than just the Denmark Prince.

First of all, if you have yet to read or watch any version of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, what are you doing with your life? Reading my blog? Stop, now, go to the library and pick up a copy. Better yourself, we could all use a little improvement, and come back after you’ve read it.

For those of you who are familiar with what some scholar’s consider the bard’s finest work, let me now encourage you to pick up a copy of the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. There is a film version, released in 1990, with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman as the titular characters, playing alongside the incomparable Richard Dreyfus, which is well worth watching – but I’d encourage you to actually sit down and read Stoppard’s work, as the film does edit down the text in some places.


I first read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in one of my high school drama classes and admit to being completely and utterly confused by the piece after the first reading. What was the point of following around these two entirely minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet while the bumble around behind the scenes of the real action of the play and make word jokes at each other? Why don’t I just read Hamlet, the story that’s actually important? I left the play for a few months while the class moved on to other topics, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The nature of the work bothered me; it’s focus, its casual reveal of the ending of two characters few people can remember by name, its seeming lack of direction. But when a few of my classmates opted to put on several scenes from the work as part of their final projects, my feeling on the work changed entirely.

Watching the two characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (even though they aren’t really sure which one of them is which), come alive on stage, I realized that they weren’t minor characters. They may have existed for a brief slice of time in the play Hamlet, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have inner lives before, during, and after the story which unfolds in that well-known play. They, like all of us, are left wondering what the point is in all of this – what is the grand design, what is the larger play in which we are but merely players? Are we villains or friends? What is our purpose? Who are we? And how in the name of all that’s holy are we meant to figure those things out?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead serves as a potent reminder that there are no such things as minor characters. Within the arc of a story, there may be characters brought more to the forefront than others, but all of the personages involved have histories, personalities, wants, desires, and worries – they are all members of the human race, with common experiences and fears. Too often side or supporting characters are ignored, their feelings or impressions not taken into account. It’s important, as writers, artists, or anyone who seeks to create stories through art, for us to know these characters’ stories and personalities, even if they are never communicated to the audience at large.

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Control and Character: Defining a New Subject in Galatea (Part 1 of 2)

The act of writing and the act of reading both engender the illusion of control. (Photo by JimKim1 via Flickr)
The act of writing and the act of reading both engender the illusion of control. (Photo by JimKim1 via Flickr)

David Sedaris, the author of such acclaimed collections as Me Talk Pretty One Day and When You Are Engulfed in Flames, was quoted during an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal as saying, “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it” (Moncur). The illusion of control referenced here is the illusion on the part of the author, a god-like figure in the modern imagination, a person capable of bestowing ‘life’ upon the inanimate objects of words, that they have any real control over how those words are perceived by an audience. However, what if this illusion could go both ways?

What if readers, more than just “bring[ing] their own stuff into [a work]”, could grasp this illusion of control within a text itself? Such fantasies are difficult to propagate in print text, when the story is fixed within a set sequence of pages. Yet in the growing world of interactive fiction, a genre of electronic literature in which “readers” or “players” explore and interact with a simulated world that is described entirely in text, it is very possible indeed (“IFWiki”). Galatea, by Emily Short, is a perfect example of this type of literature. Within this work, the person engaging with the text plays a character that interacts with the famous figure of Greek myth, Galatea, the statue carved by Pygmalion that was endowed with life.  This is a work that is “played” and “read” simultaneously, a place where the subject is allowed the illusion of control by entering text commands into a program (“IFWiki”).

A segment of Emily Short's "Galatea"
A segment of Emily Short’s “Galatea”

Illusion of control” has been attempted by several different print works, from the popular Choose Your Own Adventure books to the innovative 1984 novel, Bright Lights, Big City. Yet, in such works the illusion is incomplete, by the very fact that the subject is painfully aware of their lack of real impact on the story unfolding within the pages of the books before them. In true interactive fiction such as Galatea, the reader is allowed to affect the events described to them; they change the story, and, in a way, their very idea of self is also changed.

The "Choose Your Own Adventure" novels are fun to read alone or as part of a group. (Photo by sushiesque via Flickr)
The “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels are fun to read alone or as part of a group. (Photo by sushiesque via Flickr)

When sitting down to read a print text, readers willingly relinquish certain ideas of control. They realize that stories invariably follow certain set paths, even if they realize it only subconsciously. If a male main character notices a strange, mysterious woman across a crowded room, a reader expects that something will transpire between them. Readers understand the plot patterns of tragedies, of romantic comedies, of bildungromans, and of detective stories. The reading public has been raised consuming these types of stories and are familiar with the warp and woof of their structures. Readers let the author lead them through these well-worn paths, swearing off any interference with the plot beyond skipping to the end of a chapter to see if a character makes it out or re-reading a passage they didn’t quite understand. A large part of readers’ enjoyment of a print text rests on how well the author has led us through the story, sticking to or challenging our perceptions of how things ‘should go’.  In such a scenario, the reader is forced to recognize the authority of the author. They become painfully aware of his or her ultimate control when, for instance, something happens to a character of which the reader does not approve. There is little the reader can do to counter such unpleasantness – many turn to rewriting the story in their own way, through the medium of fanfiction. Yet, this does nothing to affect the actual print text; things remain the way the author has written them. The reader is not allowed to control or alter what the author has put down. Such an event leads to a disconnect between reader and text, a moment when the reader can no longer allow themselves to connect to the print work because they are made aware of how little the work responds back to them; how unaware it is of their presence. Depending on the size of this event, this disconnect can last a few moments or, in the worst case scenario, completely dissuade the reader from going on with the book.

In the present world of print, there is little one can do to address this problem. A publishing house couldn’t invite people to write and re-publish their own versions of a work without violating the copyright rights of the author. While a book with removable and re-organizable pages may seem like a neat solution, it doesn’t seem to be catching on with the print reading public as of yet; just ask the publishers of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished work, The Original of Laura. Released with such pull out passages, the book did not sell very well.

Works Cited

Moncur, Michael. “David Sedaris Quotes – The Quotations Page.” The Quotations Page – Your Source for Famous Quotes. 2007. Web. 01 June 2010. <;.

“FAQ.” IFWiki: The Interactive Fiction Wiki. MediaWiki, 31 May 2010. Web. 01 June 2010. .

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If there were any stars in the cold, New York sky, they were invisible; blocked out by the lights of a thousand rooftop parties happening all over the city, many having started as soon as it got dark, thousands of New Yorkers ready to welcome in the New Year with slurred cries of joy. For his part, Devon was staying as sober as possible. He’d been at the party for three hours now, but was still nursing his second drink, a watered down scotch and soda. He needed to have his wits about him if he was to succeed in his quest.

Allison stood by the edge of the roof, smiling blithely at the friends clustered around her. She had grown out her curly brown hair from last year. It bounced around her cheeks and against her neck like excited puppies, licking and nuzzling her skin. Devon had seen her in the apartment building a few times since last year – she lived on the floor above him and they shared a laundry room. But this would be the first time he dared to talk to her again after last year’s utter failure.

Squaring his shoulders, Devon downed the rest of his drink and strode into the crowd. He tried to put thoughts of last year’s New Year’s Eve out of his mind. Allison had been new then; she’d barely lived in the building for more than a month. When Devon saw her, his heart skipped a beat for the first time ever; it actually hurt a bit. He’d ended up standing awkwardly behind her, opening up with what he thought was a suave sounding ‘Hey’, but what he was left to assume was unimpressive by the way she completely ignored him, not even turning around to acknowledge his existence.

He tried offering her a drink.

No response.

Perhaps she’d like to dance.


Devon skulked away, rejected and angry. His friend, Reuben, grabbed his arm as he stalked through the crowd towards the roof door.

“Hey, was that Allison you were trying to talk to?”

“The brown haired chick?” Devon cast a mournful look over his shoulder. “Yeah, I guess. She totally blew me off, man.”

“Dude!” Reuben threw his head back and laughed, spilling his martini down his arm. “Dude, she’s deaf!”

Devon’s brow furrowed. “What?”

“She wasn’t blowing you off,” said Reuben, draping his arm over Devon’s shoulders and shaking him. “She’s deaf, man – she couldn’t hear you!”

Devon had never felt like such an idiot in his entire life. Even the time he forgot about the final project for that Drama class in freshman year, and he was forced to improvise a performance of Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura in front of a room of two hundred students, failed to compare to the complete and total embarrassment that sank through his veins and into his bones at the thought of the ass he had made of himself.

But not this year, he told himself, shaking off the memory as best he could. He’d made a promise to himself the next day, a New Year’s resolution if you will; and he intended to see it through tonight.

Allison was in front of him, angled away, nodding to her friends as they spoke. She could read lips, Reuben had explained, and talk too; but Devon was determined to make up for last year in a way he hoped was more meaningful than just talking to her.

He cleared his throat. He brushed his black bangs back out of his eyes. With a trembling hand, Devon tapped Allison’s sweater clad shoulder.

She turned as soon as the touch came, as if she had been expecting it. Devon thought he saw her seaweed green eyes brighten at the sight of him, but he couldn’t be sure. Her smile was warm and easy. He returned it with a shaky one of his own, hands hanging in front of his chest like baskets of dead flowers.

Allison waited patiently, crossing her arms in front of her. Devon took a deep breath and released it, letting his hands move in the fluid, quick motions he had been practicing all year.

Hi, I’m Devon. Happy New Year!

This time there was no mistaking the delight in Allison’s face. She gasped aloud, a quiet, high sound, like the coo of a baby bird. She rolled forward onto the tips of her toes and grabbed his wrist. Her skin was smooth, her touch gentle.

She released him after a moment, smile widening. She signed back. Hi, Devon, I’m Allison. I didn’t know you could sign!

Devon shrugged, a noiseless laugh crossing his lips. I learned. For you.

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Inspiration – Truth and Point of View in a Cold Quiet Country

The cold Wyoming winter, the backdrop of Lindemuth's dramatic and well-written novel, "Cold Quiet Country"
The cold Wyoming winter, the backdrop of Lindemuth’s dramatic and well-written novel, “Cold Quiet Country” (By watsonsinelgin via Flickr)

There are some branches of philosophy which insist that a person’s reality, i.e. what is and is not ‘true’, is defined very much by their individual perspectives. Depending on one’s point of view, shooting a deer during hunting season for sport might be an acceptable form of recreation; or it might be the cold-blooded murder of a helpless animal. But should moral issues of right and wrong, be at the mercy of someone’s point of view? It’s scary to consider, but sometimes those who hold power don’t see evil and good in the same way the rest of us do.

I recently finished reading a book by Clayton Lindemuth called Cold Quiet Country. Set in 1970, in a small town of Bittersmith, Wyoming, the story that unfolds in this novel takes place over the length of a single day. But the events which occur on that day are the consequences of actions performed years ago in the murky past; a past which only gets murkier when told from the first-person perspective of two incredibly different characters: Sheriff Bittersmith and orphan farm hand Gale G’wain.

My copy of Clayton Lindemuth's "Cold Quiet Country"
My copy of Clayton Lindemuth’s “Cold Quiet Country”

This book is not for the faint of heart. It deals with many intense, and for some, triggering, issues; issues which society is understandably reluctant to talk about, but which frankly need to be discussed in the open so much more than they are today. Parts of this book are written from the first person perspective of Sheriff Bittersmith, who has been sheriff of this small Wyoming town for the past forty years, and is on his last day of the job, having been voted out by the town council. As the story progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that Bittersmith is anything but a reliable narrator. His methods of keeping law and order are downright barbaric and his conduct towards women in the town absolutely criminal. As a matter of fact, he admits to fathering many children around the area, and, the audience is left to assume, that most of them were not conceived during willing intercourse – Sheriff Bittersmith is a serial and completely unapologetic rapist.

In contrast, Gale G’wain is a hardworking orphan of twenty, doing labor and other jobs as he travels from farm to farm to keep his belly full of food and himself warm at night. He has reasons for coming to the town of Bittersmith which I won’t reveal here, and aren’t revealed in the book until a good halfway through it. What Gail certainly doesn’t expect to do is fall in love with the strange, beautiful, sad daughter of the man he is working for, a sixteen year old girl named Gwen Haudesert. As an orphan, Gale has never known a family outside of the other boys in the home and Mister Sharpe, the tough but fair man who runs the orphanage and encourages Gale to be both an educated and moral man. However, morality gets harder to define for Gale after he realizes that Gwen is being sexually abused by her father almost nightly – and that most everyone knows about it, but does nothing.

Writing in the first person can be a powerful tool when used correctly, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in Lindemuth’s Cold Quiet Country. To be inside a character’s head is deeply engaging and automatically creates a sense of sympathy; after all, you’re seeing the world through their eyes, experiencing events in the way they do – the sense of camaraderie is strong; a reader wants to relate to the character whose point of view they are inhabiting. What Lindemuth has done here is turn this convention on its head and, in a sense, made the reader an accessory to the crimes being committed, both the morally just and unjust ones. There comes a point when, as a reader, you can’t help but feel horrified at yourself for the way you reacted to certain events related by the Sheriff or judgments you passed on Gale and his actions without having all the facts.  This is the subtle beauty of Lindemuth’s work: in addressing crimes that are so often willfully ignored by society in such a way, the reader is forced to face head on their own complicity, by their silence, in such acts. In essence, rather than hiding behind a ‘work of fiction’, the reader becomes an active character in the events of the book through the first person narration; they are forced to come to terms with the consequences of events they would feel otherwise blameless for.

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Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 7 of 7)

VII. The Fembot and Humanity’s Future: Conclusion

The Enon Robot from Fujitsu and a human friend. (Photo by Ms. President via Flickr)
The Enon Robot from Fujitsu and a human friend. (Photo by Ms. President via Flickr)

American feminist and activist Susan Brownmiller once said that “Women are all female impersonators to some degree” (“Feminization”). Judith Butler would certainly agree with this statement. Butler, when read through a feminist point of view, argues that the socially acceptable persona of femininity is completely constructed for the sole purpose of fitting into the heterosexual matrix dominated by an over defined sense of male masculinity. With this truth revealed, it is logical that society’s definition of femininity would become wider and more inclusive, leading to a greater acceptance of women as functioning, self-conscious, and self-commanding entities. The question then becomes, will that ever happen with machines?

The treatment of machines and the treatment of women have been shown to be strangely similar. Both entities have been considered, at various points in their lifetimes, to be devoid of intentionality and devoid of interiority. Both have been under the thumb of a generally male gendered ‘ruling class’ while being simultaneous tied to them for survival. Now that women have achieved public self-hood and fought for the ability to sustain themselves, will machines soon walk the same path? The signs are already around us that such a thing is possible.

In William Gibson’s 1996 novel Idoru, he weaves a complicated love story, set in the future, about a famous pop star who has announced his intention to marry a Japanese Idoru, or ‘idol-singer’, named Rei Toei. The problem is that Rei Toei is software – she is an entirely virtual entity that is adored across Japan. She’s an entertainer, a singer, but she is pure information, presenting as a hologram in public, but having no physical form at all. Even her voice is completely synthesized. The book deals with many complicated issues surrounding the ideas of pure information and avatar selves, but one of the questions it tries to address is whether or not a man can marry something that isn’t technically human. Is Rei even a person? Does she feel, want, or exist in any sense to which human beings can relate?

Signed copy of William Gibson's novel "Idoru". (Photo by Jason DeFillippo via Flickr)
Signed copy of William Gibson’s novel “Idoru”. (Photo by Jason DeFillippo via Flickr)

William Gibson’s work has always had an oddly prophetic feel to it and this novel is no different. A few years ago, the Japanese pop sensation Hatsune Miku performed sold-out shows all over Japan. Adoring fans flooded stadiums, singing along with her and her backup band, enraptured. Miku has become a media spectacle inspiring an anime and several other singers to follow in her footsteps. However, there is one catch: Hatsune Miku can’t sign autographs because she is a software computer program. She is a “digital avatar created by Crypton Future Media that customers can buy and then program to perform any song on a computer” (Graham). The Crypton Future Media group “uses voices recorded by actors and runs them through Yamaha Corp.’s Vocaloid software” -– marketed as “a singer in a box.”  The result: “A synthesized songstress that sounds far better than you ever have in your shower” (Hsu). Fans poured into the stadiums to watch a holographic idol dance and sing on stage, an avatar that is “huge and incredibly realistic” (Graham). Crypton has gone so far as to create a record label just for Miku and her kind called KarenT. Miku also has her own YouTube channel, with most of the videos from the tour available for consumption (Hsu). The Huffington Post admitted that “The sight of thousands of screaming fans waving glow sticks while the holograph ‘performs’ on stage is straight out of a science fiction novel” (Graham). They are absolutely correct – it’s right out of Gibson’s Idoru.

John Naisbitt, an American author and public speaker in the area of future studies, predicted that “The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human” (“John Naisbitt Quotes“). With the creation of more and more computer based entities like Hatsune Miku, it seems a certainty that one day an equal relationship between a human and a machine won’t seem far-fetched at all. The figure of the Fembot is the fictional site of society’s complex feelings about gender and machine intelligence, where readers of all genders can work through their feelings towards both their sexuality and the advancing state of machine consciousness. A necessary and cathartic figure, let’s hope that the Fembot will soon be accessible in the flesh; not just as a slave or tech-bauble for her human masters, but as a future friend, companion, and intelligent peer.

Works Cited

“Feminization.” Gender-ID, Your Gender Support Site. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <>.

Graham, Nicholas. “Hatsune Miku: Japanese HOLOGRAPH Plays Sold Out Concerts; Science Fiction Comes To Life (VIDEO).” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 11 Nov. 2010. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <>.

Hsu, Tiffany. “Japanese Pop Star Hatsune Miku Takes the Stage — as a 3-D Hologram | Technology | Los Angeles Times.” Technology The Business and Culture of Our Digital Lives, from the L.A. Times. The L.A. Times, 10 Nov. 2010. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <>.

“John Naisbitt Quotes.” Find the Famous Quotes You Need, Quotations. 2010. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <>.

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