That Which Remains Unseen …

A look at the process of creating characters that never actually get seen.

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.

What Motivates a Villain?

Some things to consider when creating your antagonist!

They say a story is only as good as the bad guy. We love to hate them. They provide conflict for our protagonists, allowing the tension in a story to mount until it all comes to a climax in the final confrontation. So, if you’re looking to craft a villain for your story, the first thing to consider is “What do they want?”

Every character has a motivation, something they want. Even the most seemingly insignificant background character might just want to live a peaceful life and make ends meet. That is a motive. Your antagonist, however, usually wants something more. Let’s take a look at some of the classic motivations for an antagonist and some questions for you to consider when writing them.

Power

Many villains seem to want power for the sake of power, and sometimes this is the case. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, as John Dalberg-Acton put it. When it comes to villainous characters within a story, they can usually be divided into two categories; those who became corrupt once they achieved power and those who were corrupt long before. The quest for power and what they’re willing to do for it might be what defines your villain. What lengths will they go to? How do they treat those in their way? Do they have the ability to govern that they believe they have?

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of people who have gained power only to find that the quest for it isn’t as satisfying as having it. Perhaps the most dangerous type of antagonist is one who has gained power, and even though they are inept, they are also unwilling to give up their position. The question then becomes what will they do to keep their power? Is the fear of losing their power what corrupts them and causes them to do terrible things? Shakespeare’s take on Richard III (while historically dubious) presents an all-round power hungry villain, a man who does terrible things in order to become King, then commits further crimes to make sure he keeps his crown.

Many villains strive for power because they’ve convinced themselves it is theirs by right. The principle of the strong ruling over the weak. They might feel they’ve been unjustly overlooked, or that life itself has deprived them of what should be theirs. Taking this approach when writing a villain usually mandates a ‘corrupt from the beginning’ mindset, but keep in mind that few antagonists actually believe themselves to be ‘evil’. In their minds, they are righting a wrong and doing whatever is necessary. Even pantomime villains have a motive, but they’re now pretty much the only ones to actually revel in their villainy.

So, if it’s the quest for power that’s motivating your villain, consider from the beginning what they would use it for. Give them reasons, even if the antagonist never states them outright. Keep that motive clear in your own head and you’ll find it more likely to slip into the writing with a greater degree of subtlety. Again, it’s only pantomime villains that really feel the need to declare their intentions in full!

 

Self Preservation

There are very few selfless antagonists out there. They’re in it for themselves, first and foremost, although there are some that are arguably thinking of others. Magneto, for example, leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants, fights for his fellow mutants against human aggressors. Forever at odds with his counterpart, Professor Xavier, he commits violent acts in the name of defending mutant kind. This raises a whole other question of whether violence is acceptable in defence, or does a more diplomatic approach get better results? For some villains, there is nothing but fighting the good fight, and they’ll do it by any means necessary. Again, such antagonists don’t believe that what they’re doing is wrong. They’re defending themselves against an enemy, but they’re usually not picky about who is labelled as an enemy.

Such antagonists, claiming to be fighting for a greater cause, usually won’t see the need to differentiate between the enemy and the innocent. Having been backed into the ultimate corner, they’ll usually hold to the belief that you’re either with them or against them. No room for middle ground.

The other way to look at self-preservation as a motive is more literal, the notion that a villain truly is in it for themselves and will do anything to keep themselves safe. Taking this approach when writing an antagonist allows for a more callous, cruel character. They’re more likely to sacrifice others, even those on their own side, if it means that they stay safe. This also allows you some options for when an antagonist is facing a truly hopeless situation. How are they going to respond? Does the thought of their inevitable demise drive them past the breaking point?

 

Obsession

This one is often very closely tied to the previous two motivations. They say obsession is dangerous, even more so in a character that means ill to others. If you want to paint your antagonist as obsessed, decide for definite what they’re obsessed with from the beginning, then stick to it. Is it an object? A person? Why do they want this so badly? What will they do to get it, and how do they react to the prospect of failure?

As a little sub-set to this, let’s take antagonists that are obsessed with money. They say the love of money is the root of all evil, after all. There are few examples of antagonists obsessed with accumulating wealth for the sake of having it, because ultimately most writers will consider what having great wealth brings for that character. In most cases, we circle back round to power. Being ridiculously wealthy affords one the chance to be incredibly powerful and influential. However, we should not dismiss the notion of greed as a motivation.

For many villains in film, literature or even real life, enough is never enough. Don’t be afraid to make your villain undeniably greedy, for it will help sour the reader’s view of them, but if you want to avoid making them a one dimensional money grubber, give them a reason for always wanting more. It ultimately moves the plot along, giving your protagonist something to thwart. In the classic legend, the Sheriff of Nottingham is most definitely greedy, but it’s his attempts to wed Maid Marian that cause Robin Hood to stop him once and for all.

 

Revenge

This can feel a little over used as a motivation, but I prefer to see it as a classic when handled properly. Keep in mind what we’ve said about antagonists, namely that they don’t believe what they’re doing is wrong. If someone has thwarted them, in their eyes, they have been most unjustly wronged. If you’ve decided to make your character obsessive and cruel, revenge on your protagonist is the natural way for them to go. Villains are almost never the type to simply ‘let it go’, though there are rare times when circumstances force them to do so. One of my own antagonists in my second novel is forced to forgo his chance at revenge when it becomes necessary to team up others for his own protection.  The principle here is ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

It’s tempting to say that, like the pursuit of power, actually getting revenge is not as satisfying as wanting it. If you want to give your antagonist real drive and bring a sense of threat to the story, make it clear that they’ll stop at nothing to get vengeance. While this might seem to contradict the point I made about my own antagonist, keep in mind that it all comes down to what you want the reader to believe about your villain. If you want them to fear for your protagonist, make it clear just what the enemy will do to get hold of them and leave them with no doubt as to what they’ll do when the time comes. Writing a credible villain is coupled with making the reader fear for your protagonist, the character they’ve come to root for.

 

In conclusion, when sitting down to map out a story, I’d advise making notes on your antagonist if not first, then certainly put them high on your priorities. It is their actions that are going to create the problem for your protagonist, and their actions are based on their motivations. Decide what they want from the beginning and determine in your own mind just what they’re prepared to do. Write these down and keep them close to you when writing. True villains don’t need to declare their every evil intention, they just need to act upon them. If you know just how terrible your antagonist is, it will shine through in your writing.

 

For me personally, lack of empathy is the true source of villainy. Sadly, there are many people in real life for whom empathy is an alien concept. In these difficult times, please look out for each other while striving to keep safe.