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Jon Dixon
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As I was writing yesterday, I was struck by the fact that my primary antagonist doesn't actually arrive 'onstage' until very late in the book. They are 'present' throughout (in flashbacks, through their influence on events, or through proxies acting on their behalf) but we don't actually meet them in the flesh until almost the climax of the book.

I idly wondered if there was a case to be made for completing this 'separation' by experimenting with changing the end of the book to remove their physical presence completely, and whether this would weaken or strengthen their role. In the end, I decided it wouldn't work - both the protagonist and the reader (I think) need that face-to-face confrontation for cathartic purposes - but it made me think about other fiction (book, movie, play, whatever) where a major character simply isn't there. Not where they physically arrive late in the story (like Boo Radley in 'To Kill A Mockingbird' for example) but where they are literally never actually present.

Two that I can think of off the top of my head are Sauron, the primary antagonist in 'The Lord Of The Rings', and Ellie, the protagonist's adored wife in Pixar's 'Up', who we see in the opening 'lifetime' montage but who dies before the story proper begins. In both these cases, although never actually present at any time, these are still crucial, primary characters who deeply affect the plot and the actions of the other characters throughout the story.

As a fun exercise, can anyone think of any others? 😀  Remember the rules:

1) Must be a major character who has a direct influence on the main plot

2) Must never actually be physically present in any way at any time during the entire course of the plot

(Can be any role - doesn't have to be an antagonist. In fact... extra brownie points if you can come up with a situation where it's the protagonist! Flashbacks, dreams, reportage etc. allowed, as are proxies)

  •  I don’t think the dark lord is ever shown in all 17 (?) books of Robert Jordan’s wheel of time. Another Sauron type character.

    Will be interesting to see if anyone can come up with some non fantasy psychological thriller type where you never see the antagonist.

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    • They're not antagonists but Harry potter's parents are arguably very influential in their son's life through their actions and relationships. They're only seen in flash back, memory, magic mirrors etc.

      Lots of essential absentee parents in YA and kids books, for we all know that there's no fun to be had unless your parents are estranged, neglectful or (and this is the preference) DEAD

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      • Great example, Lynn.

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        • Yep. And he/she/they don't have to be the antagonist! 🙂 

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        • The main example that comes to mind is Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. She’s dead but a huge presence that motivates the whole story. 

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          • Wow, great example! Kicking myself for not thinking of that one! 

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            • Of course! Perfect example!

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              • Rebecca was the one that sprang immediately to my mind.

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              • Maybe 'Big Brother' in Orwell's "1984"  Not a physical character in any sense but it is the ultimate motivational character.

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                • Oh, good call! Although if we to be really strict and nit-picky, it's arguable that Big Brother (whether an actual person or a fictional construct personifying the Party , as is at least implied by O'Brien) never takes direct action as a character but is present as a part of the overall dystopian setting. 😄 

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                  • True, but the final iconic line doesn't mention O'Brien.

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                  • Keeping to the original theme of the abstracted, never-present antagonist, I'm going to take the mention of Sauron/Jordan's Dark Lord and Big Brother, and from there propose that there are many books that fit this model.

                    These super-antagonists are embodiments of ideas. They are societal evil given shape. In some cases, they are the embodiment of an enemy of the society the story is set in, but - probably more often - they represent a perceived evil of the real world. That evil may be something attacking the accepted structure of society, or it may be a cancer within society itself, depending on the author's perception. (For example, it may be a representation of those who anjure a dominant religion, thereby undermining the accepted order; or it may be a representation of the religion itself that restricts and represses the individual.)

                    These enemies, these evils, are too large to be faced head-on. As antagonists, they cannot be conquered directly. Therefore, the story will revolve around the protagonist's interaction with an avatar of the great enemy. In the case of Big Brother, O'Brien is that avatar. In the case of Sauron, it's the Nazgûl. (Yes, in the case of LotR, Sauron himself is defeated when the ring is thrown into Mount Doom, which would say that he is actively present throughout the book as his soul is forged into said ring… but let's leave that as a cheating device to achieve absolute victory in a situation where it shouldn't reasonably be possible.)

                    Yes, much fantasy - at least from a certain period - was built upon this simplistic good-versus-evil theme, with a great enemy that could not be faced directly, pitting heroes agaisnt the evil's avatars.

                    And there is another genre where this is near ubiquitous: historical military fiction, specifically in an Allies-centric, European WWII setting. Hitler - or the Third Reich - is the ultimate antagonist, the real enemy. The German forces, whom the protagonists come in contact with, are only avatars. Puppets.

                    I'm sure that there are other genres that follow this same archetype.

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                    • That's a really insightful point, Rick. I guess I was thinking much more of a simpler(?) 'character'. But I really like the idea of the 'supe-antagonist' representing a wider malaise in society or human existence.

                      You've actually made me re-evaluate my own antagonist to see if there might be some of that lurking behind their 'personification', and which could be hinted at for the reader... although my antagonist, while potentially world-ending' if successful, is deliberately a lot smaller in 'scale' than Sauron or any of the other members of 'Dark Lords Anonymous' that populate the more epic fantasy sagas.

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                      • Damn, I like that… "Dark Lords Ananymous". A brilliant title. May I steal it?

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                        • Oh... go on then... 😂 

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                        • Super late to this thread. Interesting conversation. Will have to sit with it all. 

                          For the original "challenge," offered one thing came quickly to mind (not an antagonist):

                          Stealing Home (movie) - Mark Harmon, Jodie Foster. It is her death around which the whole plot of the film hinges. She was his babysitter when they were both young and were very close for years. Unexpectedly willed her ashes even though they'd been out of touch for years, Mark Harmon's character is forced to sort out his own issues while he tries to figure out what to do with them. She is only ever seen in flashbacks. 

                          Nothing groundbreaking or iconic like 1984 or the other examples offered already, but it has stayed with me over the years. I would imagine there are other stories out there that start with a death as an inciting incident (directly or indirectly as here where it is the ashes and not the actual death itself that motivates the plot and MC arc). My brain is mush at the moment, so I cannot think of any others but, like UP, I know they're out there. 

                          I suppose, boiled down, it would be a whole set of plots where "LOSS" of some kind is a key motivator and that which has been lost (be it animal, vegetable, mineral, or magical) is either never seen or only seen in flashbacks. In line with this idea of "loss" - Revenge/Avenge plots often have some of this going on too, maybe? Which may be where you started thinking about this in a way I suppose??


                          The only other thing that came to mind was Charlie Brown's teacher, lol. Never seen. Entirely impossible to understand. Important and more-than-vaguely antagonistic :) 


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                          • Very good example! And thanks for the reminder of that movie, which I remember as being excellent. I should watch it again. LOL at Charlie Brown's teacher! Brilliant! 😂  (Though, truthfully, I always preferred 'Calvin and Hobbes' to  'Peanuts' - wonderful though Charles Schulz is, Bill Watterson is quite simply in a league of his own! 😉 ).

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                          • My teacher was very much present I'll have you know.

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