Now, I’m not a big theatregoer but I have a huge and perverse love for that most British of traditions, the Christmas pantomime. To explain the essence of pantomime to anyone who has never seen one is almost impossible but, roughly speaking, it’s a retelling of a famous fairytale through drama, slapstick and song in which the heroine and the hero (the principal boy) are both played by women and the principal boy’s mother is played by an ugly man. Custard pies are thrown, topical and local news stories are satirised, and the fourth wall is not only broken but thoroughly mangled.
At the end of any other play or musical, the cast would come onto stage, take a bow, receive the audience’s praise and depart but not in pantomime. An intrinsic element of every pantomime is the wedding scene at the end of the play. In this scene, each character or pair of characters (even the villains, even those that have died!) come on, take their bows, maybe delivers a line, sing a snippet of a song and join in the applause as the next characters take the stage. In this way, every single character is present as the story concludes and not a single character is brushed aside or forgotten.
In other story media, be it books, film or television, characters can be jettisoned, discarded or simply forgotten well before the end. In fact, it happens so often that there’s a name for it: the Chuck Cunningham Syndrome, named for Richie Cunningham’s older brother who disappeared from the Happy Days show without any given reason. It happens also in the film, The Dirty Dozen, when the character Jiminez vanishes halfway through the film (actually because the actor Trini Lopez started demanding extra money and was fired). The TV Tropes website points out that there also seems to be a fine tradition of randomly disappearing characters in John Carpenter films and puts it down to sloppy plotting more than anything else.
Even the written word is not immune, a world where money, awkward actors and studio executives can’t be blamed for random character assassination. In Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein bemoans the death of his entire family even though his brother, Ernest, has been left, abandoned and forgotten in the narrative some time earlier. In the Victorian genre-defining vampire novel, Varney the Vampire, there are three Bannerworth siblings and then, with no reason given at all, they suddenly become two!
What’s the point of all these musings? Well, I am just writing the final chapter of our collaborative novel, Clovenhoof. Even though we have tried to keep our cast list of characters small, they have nonetheless proliferated to the point at which there are maybe two dozen named individuals in the entire story and some of them have taken on a significant and entertaining role in the story. The question is not only have we lost any along the way what should we do with the survivors at the end? Should they be discarded as soon as they have fulfilled their purpose or should they, like the montage sequence at the end of a star-studded ensemble movie, each be given their moment to shine before the whole thing is brought to a close?
I am drawn to the latter option. As a writer (and as a reader) I want to know where the characters are at the end of a story, what they have achieved, how they have developed. As I said at the start, I am a huge fan of pantomime and the grand stage-swelling scene at the end.
But having said that, at the end of a large pantomime production, my hands do get tired from all that clapping. Sometimes you do wish they’d just take their bow quickly and get off.