Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Characters in Absentia:

When Less is More

By
Rang Lieu

2003, Rang Lieu 

reader attaches more importance to the characters who get more of the spotlight, because the reader spends more time getting to know these characters, and identifying with them.  If the reader is spending so much time reading about these characters (and you're spending so much time writing them), then they'd better damn well be important.  Otherwise, the reader will feel cheated, having wasted time devoted to those characters. 

Thus, if Tom is a supporting character who appears in 50% of the scenes, and the supporting characters Dick and Harry only appear in 10% of the scenes, it's reasonable to assume that Tom is a more important figure in the story.  It's a good rule of thumb, and applies equally to supporting characters or villains.  That's why when actors receive a script, they count how many scenes they appear in, to judge the size of the roles before accepting.

After all, the more important a character, the more scenes you devote to him, right?  If it's a main character, you give him the most spotlight.  Right?  Well, yes . . . ummm . . . kind of . . . but not always.

There are, what I like to call, Characters In Absentia.  These characters don't appear on stage much, and are rarely if ever physically present in any scene, yet their effects on the story are phenomenally visible.  These truant characters remain central to the plot and actively involved, and their contributions are every bit as significant as those of the main character.  Although these characters are absent, their stature is magnified so that it vastly exceeds that of characters who appear more often.  Neat concept, huh?

I first considered the concept of absent character magnification after reading Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint, in which he mentioned giving characters significance even when they're absent.  He offered the example of Tolkien's Sauron -- a shadowy villain always looming in the background -- as an example of this phenomenon.  Since then, I've observed this principle used in everything, ranging from Robert Jordan's work to the Harry Potter novels to the television show Fraiser.  I have refined my analysis of it.  Here's my view of how this principle works, and can help you in your writing.

The basis for why absent character magnification works is threefold.  It works via the filtering lens of viewpoint characters, the nature of presence, and background influence.  By understanding this basis, and using it, you can make a perennially missing character absorb more of your readers' attention than the one right in front of them.

First, the reader cares if the viewpoint character cares.  Thus, if the onstage character constantly worries about the Absentia Character, then the reader starts to worry also.  Every time the present characters think of the missing character, your readers absorb those thoughts and think of the Absentia Character, too.  Keep the Absentia Character prominent in the minds of the other characters, and he'll figure prominently in the minds of readers.

Second, although the missing character might not be physically present in a scene, you can still include his nonphysical presence via the thoughts, speech, and actions of the other characters who are present.  If John Doe is physically present in only 10% of the scenes, but he features prominently in the words and thoughts of others in 90% of the scenes, then John Doe is not really an insignificant character.  His story role, even in absentia, is quite large.  So use nonphysical ways to place your Absentia Character into scenes.

Finally, the effects of the Absentia Character can be felt through his background influence and through the use of proxy agents.  We may never see the Emperor, but our army commander protagonist constantly receives revised orders from him and support troops, so we know who the Emperor is and how important he is.  If Mr. Missing never appears, but if we're confronted with the goons sent by Mr. Missing in every other scene, then we know he's a major character.  Thus, you can allow the Absentia Character to act via proxies, while maintaining his distance.  The more influence he has, the more powerful he is in your readers' minds.

Why make a character into an Absentia Character?  Because, paradoxically, the less your reader sees of him, the more significant he can become.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Every single rare appearance of the Absentia Character will capture your reader's quivering and salivating attention, primed by everything the reader knows of him already, hyped by all the other characters, multiplied by the mystique of the little seen.  Every appearance will be precious and valuable, full of tension and anticipation.  Not bad for a technique to manipulate reader emotions.

This technique works especially well for villains in fantasy, where the ominous mystique adds menace.  For example, think of the major bad guys like Tolkien's Sauron, Jordan's Dark One, Goodkind's Keeper of the Underworld, Hickman & Weis's Kitiara and Dark Queen, Rowling's Lord Voldemort, and even the cat-stroking arch-criminal (whose face we never see) in the Inspector Gadget cartoons.  These villains all play a major role, and the readers obsess about them and their evil plots.  The villains rarely show themselves physically in a scene, but when they do -- WHAM!  It's a major plot development, with the readers on the edge of their seats. 

You don't have to go to the extremes of never showing the Absentia Character, but be very selective about when and where you allow him to appear.  As long as these characters are still present in other forms, a less physical presence means more mental presence, and more impact when they walk onstage.

This technique works for not only evil demigod villains, but supporting characters of lesser importance as well.  On the television show Third Rock From the Sun, we hear much of the "Big Giant Head" before ever seeing him.  But because we've heard so much of him, by the time he does show up, the audience is eagerly anticipating him.  Think of the television show Fraiser.  On Fraiser, we rarely see Nile's persnickety ex-wife Merise, but she played an important role in many episodes, pivotal to the plot in some.  We hear the cast discussing her, talking to her on the phone, wrestling with her demands, detailing her responses, and reacting to her. 

And the Character in Absentia isn't static wallpaper.  He's doing things to advance the plot, even if he doesn't act onstage.   Every time your protagonists run into a hurdle, make it the result of the offstage machinations of the villain.  Every time your shipwrecked sailor fights to reach home, make him think of his absent wife, talk about her to his companions, get a letter saying she's remarried, or learn from an enemy she'd been kidnapped.  Absentia doesn't mean stagnant.

Finally, there's the big pay off: emerging from Absentia.  You can use the Absentia character's appearance on stage as a transforming event.  Think of an old western where the heroes spend most of the time waiting for cavalry, talking about them, delaying for them, praying for them.  The cavalry has spent most of the time in Absentia.  Once they appear, everything changes.  Ditto for villains.  The Harry Potter books take a sharp turn when Lord Voldemort finally appears in the flesh. 

If you tighten the tension and anticipation, moving a character out of Absentia can jolt your plot into a different stage of intensity.  But you must properly plant the character in Absentia in the first place, with all the attendant techniques to magnify his significance.  Otherwise you won't have a Character in Absentia, only a missing character of little importance.

Just remember, you don't want to make all of your characters into Characters in Absentia, because then you'd have no story.  But careful and selective application of this concept can do wonders for tension buildup and emphasis reinforcement.

Books mentioned in this article:

Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card, Writers Digest Books, ISBN: 0898799279

Wizard's First Rule, Terry Goodkind, Tor books, ISBN: 0812548051

Stone of Tears, Terry Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812548094

Blood of the Fold, Terry Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812551478

Temple of the Winds, Terry Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812551486

Soul of the Fire, Terry Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812551494

Faith of the Fallen, Terry Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 081257639X

Pillars of Creation, Terry Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 0765300265

Eye of the World, Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812511816

The Great Hunt, Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812517725

The Dragon Reborn, Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812513711

The Shadow Rising, Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812513738

The Fires of Heaven, Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812550307

Lord of Chaos Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812513754

A Crown of Swords, Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812550285

The Path of Daggers, Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812550293

Winter's Heart, Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0312864256

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone J. K. Rowlings, Scholastic Trade, ISBN: 0590353403

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowlings, Scholastic Trade, ISBN: 0439064864

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban J. K. Rowlings, Scholastic Trade, ISBN: 0439136369

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowlings, Scholastic Trade, ISBN: 0439139600

Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Co; ISBN: 0618260587

Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, Wizards of the Coast; ISBN: 0786915749

Dragons of Winter Night, Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, Wizards of the Coast, ISBN: 0786916095

Dragons of Spring Dawning, Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, Wizards of the Coast, ISBN: 0786915897