Less is More
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
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
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
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
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
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
and Viewpoint, Orson Scott
Card, Writers Digest Books, ISBN: 0898799279
First Rule, Terry Goodkind,
Tor books, ISBN: 0812548051
of Tears, Terry Goodkind,
Tor Books, ISBN: 0812548094
of the Fold, Terry
Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812551478
of the Winds, Terry
Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812551486
of the Fire, Terry
Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812551494
of the Fallen, Terry
Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 081257639X
of Creation, Terry
Goodkind, Tor Books, ISBN: 0765300265
of the World, Robert
Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812511816
Great Hunt, Robert Jordan,
Tor Books, ISBN: 0812517725
Dragon Reborn, Robert
Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812513711
Shadow Rising, Robert
Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812513738
Fires of Heaven, Robert
Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812550307
of Chaos¸ Robert Jordan,
Tor Books, ISBN: 0812513754
Crown of Swords, Robert
Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812550285
The Path of Daggers,
Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812550293
Robert Jordan, Tor Books, ISBN: 0312864256
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone¸
J. K. Rowlings, Scholastic Trade, ISBN: 0590353403
Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,
J. K. Rowlings, Scholastic Trade, ISBN: 0439064864
Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban¸
J. K. Rowlings, Scholastic Trade, ISBN:
Potter and the Goblet of Fire,
J.K. Rowlings, Scholastic Trade, ISBN: 0439139600
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
of Winter Night, Tracy
Hickman and Margaret Weis, Wizards of the Coast, ISBN: 0786916095
of Spring Dawning, Tracy
Hickman and Margaret Weis, Wizards of the Coast, ISBN: 0786915897