When Absent Characters Loom Large


Sometimes, the most important character in a novel isn’t the one who appears on the greatest number of pages. Sometimes a reader can be most emotionally affected by a character who doesn’t appear on the page at all. Neither of these describes the vast majority of novels; most traditional narratives generally put their most compelling characters front and center. Creating a character whose presence is felt without necessarily making regular appearances is harder to pull off: it’s a kind of balancing act, an endeavor to make sure that a character’s reputation doesn’t outshine their actual appearance. “Show, don’t tell” is the old maxim, to be sure–but if done with enough verve, the telling can be effective in its own way. 

This shouldn’t be regarded as a particularly new literary device. Consider Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Reading the book now, one of the more striking aspects of it is how little the book’s title character is actually on the page. He’s there at the beginning, to be sure, menacing Jonathan Harker in his castle, and he returns for the novel’s climax. But for the bulk of the novel, he’s elusive; the book’s heroes are largely forced to contend with his machinations, and to piece together the often-sinister plans that he has made. It’s in keeping with the structure of the novel, where the story is assembled through from letters and journal entries. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that of all the characters who might be suited to shrouding themselves in mystery, a long-lived vampire with vengeance in his heart is about as close to ideal as one can get.

The figure of Kurtz, both in Joseph Conrad’s short novel Heart of Darkness and in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation Apocalypse Now, is another figure whose impact is made largely through the wake he leaves, rather than through his direct actions on the page. For all that Marlow, the man who searches for Kurtz, is the book’s narrator and central character, it’s Kurtz who lurks at the center of the work. Though the actual appearance of Kurtz, both in Conrad’s book and in Coppola’s adaptation, is a more complex scene, both living up to a certain set of expectations and evading them entirely. 

Graham Greene’s novella The Third Man (written before but released after the film, for which he also wrote the screenplay) features a similar character whose absence suffuses the film. Here, it’s Harry Lime, a man living in post-World War II Vienna whose apparent death brings his friend  Martins (in the film, his first name is Holly; in the book, Rollo) to investigate. Slowly, Martins learns that nothing that he knew about his absent friend is true: the seemingly benign figure of his memory has been replaced with a far more corrupt and amoral one. And–spoilers, for those who haven’t yet encountered a work that’s over 60 years old–Lime himself turns out to be very much alive. 

Dracula’s structure and themes allow for a shadowy character to remain offscreen without losing any of their power, and the presence of magic in Susanna Clarke’s epic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell serves a similar function. Throughout the novel, which is divided into three parts, references are made to a figure known as The Raven King, who ruled the north of England using magic centuries before the actions of the novel take place. Also known as John Uskglass, he is idolized by some of the book’s central characters and feared by others; as long-lived magicians tend to do, he vanished long before the book begins. Questions run throughout the novel as to his whereabouts, and how much of a role he might be playing from the sidelines of this particular narrative. This feeling is only increased when readers reach the novel’s third part, the previous two being named for the title characters, and see that it’s named for Uskglass himself. As with Stoker’s novel, Uskglass’s importance despite his absence is of a piece with the rest of the work: one of the novel’s other main characters is referred to throughout by his physical description, for instance. 

More recently, Michael Kimball’s novel Dear Everybody made one of its most emotionally affecting characters a figure who never actually appears on the page. It’s structured as kind of history of its main character Jonathan, a now-deceased man who struggled with depression his whole life. Slowly, the reader is given a sense of the character putting all of these pieces together: the protagonist’s brother, who emerges through the structural decisions he makes as someone as compelling as any of the other figures on display. 

Jami Attenberg’s novel Saint Mazie focuses on the life of Mazie Phillips, best known for her work looking after the poor and destitute on the Lower East Side during the Great Depression. Interspersed with Mazie’s narrative is the story of a documentary being made about her life–and, gradually, the reader is given glimpses of the filmmaker’s life through comments made by the people she interviews. It’s a subtle touch, and one that provides an interesting counterpoint to the larger narrative. 

Whether these characters lurk in the margins or hover above the action, they lead their narratives in unexpected ways, and in doing so upend the reader’s expectation as well. When done well–and the six works discussed here all fall into that category–it’s a reminder of the potential of fiction, and of the myriad ways in which character can be conveyed.


This essay first appeared at Read It Forward.

Photo: Brianna Tucker/Unsplash

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