Some of the greatest characters are the ones we never get to see. This sounds odd, I’ll give you that, but hear me out. I’ll soon be returning to the biggest manuscript I’ve ever attempted. The delay in editing is intentional, as I believe I’ll be able to tackle this 228,000 word piece better if I do so having forgotten most of what I had written. What I do recall, however, which will need some more attention in edits, is a character I created. A fearsome and, indeed, feared warrior, who will never actually appear in the book. He’ll only be mentioned by others.
This got me thinking lately about the characters who are never actually seen by the reader or viewer. Just like any other character, from the writer’s point of view, they need to be crafted and developed. Any one character can be partly defined by how other characters view them. With the Unseen Character, the reader or viewer must rely entirely on how others view that character, yet the writer must in turn develop that by having a very clear idea of the character. The major difference is that the writer keeps a great deal to themselves. This can be vital, for reasons I’ll get into presently.
From the beginning, the writer must decide if this character is ever going to be seen, and in my view they must stick to that decision no matter what. If you intend this character to make an appearance later in the story, then slowly drip feed details about them to the reader where necessary. It should be enough to capture the reader’s interest, but not be so sensational that you risk disappointing the reader, unless that is indeed part of the story. Reputations are not always deserved, after all, in real life or fiction. I have no intention of ever featuring this character, yet when he is spoken of by others there will be a sense of awe and fear throughout. The fact that he has been defeated by another, more prominent character, will provide a greater sense of awe for that character, and thus his service to the plot has been rendered.
Creating an entire character, even an unseen one, purely for the purpose of world building can have its uses, but a writer must be careful not to litter their work with them. Particularly in fantasy, too many names being thrown about can serve only to confuse the reader, especially if those names end up having no further part to play in the story. This is not to say that the characters in a story must be kept only to the core players, as it were. There is a fine balance between effective world building within a story and effectively writing a full history. In other words, make up a character on the spot if necessary for a one off mention, but do so sparingly.
The reason I say a writer must decide whether a character will eventually be seen or not is that it’s a matter of expectations. If the details about a character are scant yet tantalising, the reader will instantly begin to fill in those details with their own imagination. Although we as writers can never please everyone, this is ever more the case when it comes to Unseen Characters. We run the risk of disappointing our readers, having built up their hopes and their own idea of this character, only to have them dashed to pieces by what the writer actually intended for them. This can, at times, be used as a device to further the plot, or indeed as a bit of comic relief, but if you’re going to build up a character and have them be a major player then be sure to up your game. Make sure they are every bit as honourable or dishonourable as you have made them out to be, and just maybe you’ll exceed the reader’s expectations.
The importance of the Unseen Character as a comic device cannot be overlooked, and there have been one or two examples lately which reinforce my point about deciding from the beginning if this character is ever going to be seen. Comedy is, of course, subjective, and much relies on the audiences own sense of imagination. Comedy allows us to delve into the absurd and the extreme. A character can be described in such a manner that provokes such extreme reactions from others that the character could never actually be portrayed. This is not always the case, of course. Some characters such as Godot in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot’ is never seen, and is ultimately described very little. His existence, however, is the very reason for the piece and the comedy is generated through the anticipation of his arrival. Of course, he never does (spoiler alert!).
As far as creating characters as a writer, I don’t hold much distinction between crafting a character for a stage play and crafting a character for a television script. Both require the same degree of effort and thought. Let me jump, therefore, to another unseen character, in the form of Mrs. Mainwaring. The wife of Captain Mainwaring, commander of the Walmington-On-Sea Home Guard, is often referred to but never actually seen. She provokes a certain degree of trepidation from her husband, while she herself is well known for being something of a recluse. It is believed that the writers of ‘Dad’s Army’, Jimmy Perry and David Croft, considered featuring her at some point, but the cast agreed that everyone had their own idea of what Mrs. Mainwaring was like, and to reveal her would “destroy the character”. Yet, she appears in the 2016 film version, and this is ultimately what I was talking about. In my view, she was completely different from what had been established in the original series, and the fact that she appeared at all really seemed to fly in the face of this fundamental comedy principle, that the unseen characters should remain unseen. This, of course, takes nothing away from Felicity Montagu’s performance, I just feel that her character could just as easily have been someone other than Mrs. Mainwaring.
Comedy is, quite frankly, one of things that has got me through these last few years. We’ve all had a rough time during this pandemic, and revisiting old favourites has certainly lifted my spirits. There are many examples of Unseen Characters that have been crafted exceedingly well;
- Sheridan, Hyacinth Bucket’s spoiled (and very possibly gay) son in ‘Keeping Up Appearances.
- Maris, Niles’ wife in ‘Frasier’.
- Joe Maplin, the greedy and unscrupulous owner of Maplin’s holiday camp, heard of only through the clipped and reserved reading of his letters by Jeffrey Fairbrother in ‘Hi-de-Hi’.
- Stan Walker, the on-again, off-again husband of Karen in ‘Will & Grace’.
Though we may at times take these characters for granted simply because we don’t see them, the fact remains that a writer has still put a great deal of time and energy into crafting them, to ensure they have the right impact on the plot or to have us roaring with laughter at the thought of them. I am looking forward to returning to editing my latest manuscript (even though it is huge), as I am keen to expand this Unseen Character just enough to build up the reader’s own sense of who he is, or rather, who he was.