20 June 2014

The Unseen Character

There are different kinds of characters in any piece of writing. There's the main character, the supporting characters. There are protagonists and antagonists. There are characters who may just pop in for a scene and are never heard from again. I've come to realize, however, that there's another kind of character, one that's different from all of these other ones for one very distinct reason--you never actually see them.

If you think of a story as a snapshot in the main character's life, then there are only going to be certain moments--and certain people--who matter. You wouldn't want to mention every single person your character knows. Unless having every member of your MC's extended family show up is important to the story, then we don't have to meet all of those characters, even if they have a big influence on the MC's life. I'm wondering, though--is it ok to mention a character even if we never meet them?

I've been thinking about this a lot through my editing process because I've come to realize that I have not one, not two, but THREE unseen characters. These are characters who are mentioned now and then but never appear in any page of the novel. Is it ok to do this? Or does mentioning a character without ever bringing them to the page going to disappoint or confuse your reader?

The way I see it, each of my three main characters has a person who has (or still does) influence their lives in some way, but these people never make it onto the page. For example, it's hinted at that my MC's mother has some sort of relationship with her boss, this being the main reason why she is never home. But we never meet her boss, and the few times where she shows up, she never mentions him, either. The boss is basically only mentioned by the narrator to give some sort of explanation to the reader about his home life, and why his mother isn't around.

I'm not so worried about this character. He's not all that important to the story, so I don't think we need to meet him, even if he is mentioned. I am struggling with another one of my unseen characters, however. Another character frequently mentions his sister, and his family history actually plays a big role in the way he sees himself and how he lives his life. But she is another character that we never meet. The big problem with this is that my book is in first person, and there is no possible scenario where my narrator would meet this person. So I wonder if it's ok to mention her as many times as I do. She was a new character I added to the second draft to sort of tie everything together, explaining why my more important character (her brother) does certain things. Basically I felt there were a lot of unanswered questions in the first draft that I answered by creating her. Now I'm only left with one--if she's so important, why isn't she actually in the book? It's not very easy to figure out. I wouldn't want to stretch things out, make a scene that isn't important to the plot just to justify a character's existence. But if I remove her, I feel like everything will fall apart again.

What do you think? Is it ok to mention a character that we never meet? Do any of your stories have an unseen character?


  1. From a reader's perspective, I am totally ok with an unseen character. I think it adds an aura of mystery to the story :-)

  2. I think it's completely fine not to have the boss show up in your story. His only purpose is to provide an explanation as to why his mom isn't around and he does that without being present. If he's not important to the story line then he doesn't need to be around.

    If you're uncertain, you could easily have the mother tell her son (when she pops up) that she's leaving to see her boss. And basically that's all you need to do.

    I think every story has unseen characters. And I don't think a reader will notice that these characters who don't need to be present, aren't present. Even if they tie things together, like the sister. If she doesn't do anything for the plot, she can remain invisible.

    In my unpublished series, the antagonist is actually unseen. My hero and heroine don't know who the antagonist is and don't know his/her name, only what s/he is known by. The things that happen to them are caused by this person, but it's the mystery behind who it is that makes the story what it is. I don't actually show this character until the third book!

  3. I'm fine with using any character as long as they have a purpose for being there... that purpose is to keep moving the plot forward. If they aren't adding anything, I cut them.

  4. I don't think every character needs to make an appearance. If the character had a strong influence and it's current, but they are never in a scene, it still works.

  5. I never really thought about it, but I agree with Chrys that I imagine every story has unseen characters. As a reader I don't think I'd even notice.

  6. I'm writing a story about a character whose parents died; in the first draft, they were unseen characters too. But in the second draft, I included flashbacks where she remembered what life with them was like.

  7. I have at least 7 unseen characters in my novel. lol I never thought of them that way until you said it. That's really cool. One unseen is how my MC connects with three of her supporting characters, and they to each other. 4 of the 7 are the reason the plot happened in the first place. Etc., etc. lol

  8. Although I agree that unseen characters are fine, if one "plays a big role in the way he sees himself and how he lives his life," I would favor having her appear somehow. It might be just in a brief smartphone or skype-ish conversation with an idiosyncratic detail.