Unseen character

Unseen character

In fiction, an unseen character is a character that is never directly observed by the audience but is only described by other characters. They are a common device in drama[1][2] and have been called "triumphs of theatrical invention".[3] They are continuing characters — characters who are currently in frequent interaction with the other characters and who influence current story events. Films, television shows and stage plays make use of characters who are not seen or heard, but who have an effect on the events portrayed.

Radio shows also feature "unheard" characters who never speak. A notable example is the long-running British radio soap The Archers which has featured several such silent characters.[4] Sometimes the script plays with audience knowledge that the characters never speak. The silence of the character Pru Forrest became a long-running joke "with scriptwriters competing to invent more outlandish excuses for her failure to speak." She was eventually given a dramatic eruption of speech when Terry Wogan appeared on the soap.[5]

Books can feature characters who are referenced by others, but whose actions and dialogue are never directly described. The work of Voltaire, for example, included the "unseen character".[6]

Illustrative examples

In plays, the two protagonists of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett are waiting for the never seen Godot to arrive; the mystery of what has happened to the unseen Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer by Tennessee Williams is central to the story; Doubt: A Parable is about the question of whether a Catholic priest at a church school is sexually abusing Donald Muller, a never seen student at the school; The unseen Eva Smith in An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley is important as a representation of the working classes; Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is never seen, but is crucial to how the title characters meet.

In novels, the title character in Don Quixote is in love with Dulcinea, a simple peasant who Quixote imagines to be the most beautiful of all women. He has seen her only fleetingly and has never spoken with her and while she is frequently referred to and often motivates his actions, she does not ever appear. Emma by Jane Austen has a few characters who are mentioned frequently and never seen, most notably Mrs. Churchill, the presumed-hypochondriac aunt and adoptive mother of Frank Churchill.

In television, the UK series Minder starred George Cole as Cockney wheeler-dealer Arthur Daley who often referred to his wife as "'er indoors". She was never seen on screen. Mrs Daley was even the focus of one episode, "Whatever Happened to Her Indoors?", in which she mysteriously disappears. She is still not seen by the audience even when reported to have returned home safely.

See Category:Unseen characters for more examples.


  1. ^ See for example, Byrd, Robert E. Jr. Unseen Characters in Selected Plays of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee (Dissertations, Academic, 1998).
  2. ^ See also Ade, George. "Introducing "Nettie"; Who Is the Leading But Unseen Character in a New Princess Playlet", The New York Times (December 6, 1914): Drama Music Real Estate Business Financial, p. xx2.
  3. ^ Bruckner, D.J.R. "Theater Review; The Unseen Characters Emerge by Invention", New York Times, 16 September 1994, p.26.
  4. ^ Snatch Foster.
  5. ^ Adultery and the Archers: An everyday story of radio hype, The Independent, November 7, 2006
  6. ^ Theodore Besterman and J.L. Schorr, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, University of Michigan, 1956, p.195.

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