December 16, 2013
What is an Invisible Character?
There are two kinds of invisible characters: those you create intentionally, and those you create by mistake. If you use beta readers, you’ll spot the mistakes quickly. They’ll be the characters that your readers don’t remember the names of. Or what they looked like, or what role they played in the plot. I know you’ve had it happen to you. Think about it. Have you ever been reading a book, and about halfway through, a character appears that seems familiar, and yet…you can’t quite place them. I call these invisible characters. They’re important enough for the author to give them a role in the book, sometimes to even name them, but not important enough to make them memorable.
What Constitutes an Invisible Character?
- lack of depth?
- too plain?
- not enough page time?
- no good dialogue?
Maybe it’s a combination of some, or all, of the above. As an author, that’s a problem. You don’t want readers forgetting your characters, even if it’s for a few minutes.
Is it ever all right for a character to be invisible? Yes—when you want them to be. Sometimes you might want to introduce a person without drawing attention to them. Perhaps you plan on bringing them back into the plot as a suspect in a crime. So maybe there’s a homeless guy outside the coffee shop where your protag stops each morning. The homeless guy appears to be in the story to show how nice the protag is because he puts money in the cup each day, but the homeless guy is really casing the jewelry store across the street. These scenarios work perfectly—as long as you give the readers enough of an impression to let them remember with an “aha,” once they discover the truth. When this is done right, it makes reading magical.
Real Life Examples
Real life offers plenty of examples. Let’s take a look at a few I saw this week while tending to the animals. I was walking down the sidewalk, not paying much attention to anything. I walked past a bundle of sticks, past some leaves, and then—whoa! As I stepped off the walk, a “velvet ant” otherwise known as a “cow killer,” casually crossed in front of me. Cow killers don’t go out of their way to attack you. They keep to themselves and always seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere. The problem is, if you happen to step on one, barefoot, or hit one with your hand while gardening, you could be in trouble. They earned the nickname of “cow killer” because the bite is said to be so painful it could kill a cow. I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but it must have some basis in truth. Either way, I don’t want to test it.
Back to the Story
The surprising thing is not that I noticed the cow killer—they’re pretty hard to miss—but that I walked right past the stick caterpillar—several times. Take a look at the picture above, then at the pictures below, taken a few minutes later.
The stick caterpillar makes itself invisible for a reason, just like authors develop invisible characters. The surprise, once uncovered, is much more rewarding. I now look for stick caterpillars every time I walk down that sidewalk by the garden. The same thing happens in books. If you create an invisible character that works well, and gives your readers that “aha,” factor, you will be rewarded greatly. Every time those readers pick up one of your books in the future they’ll be looking for those characters, which means they’ll be paying more attention to your writing, be more involved.
I talked about invisible characters, but it doesn’t have to be just that. The “invisible” things can be clues or pieces of evidence. And it doesn’t matter if the book is a mystery, fantasy, romance…it just doesn’t matter. Look at the movie, The Sixth Sense, where dozens of clues were planted but few people noticed until the end, when they got that huge aha moment. Or The Usual Suspects, one of my favorite movies, which had some of the same clues infused in Verbal Kent’s storytelling. Learn to do these things right and you will thrill your readers, and that is exactly what you want to do.
Ciao, and thanks for stopping by,