December 16, 2013

Invisible Characters

author Giacomo Giammatteo and his dog Slick

Giacomo & Slick

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.

Special Circumstances

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.

Pile of sticks

Velvet Ant, aka Cow Killer

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.

stick caterpillar hiding

Stick Caterpillar Crawling

Walking Stick

Stick Caterpillar on bench








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.

Bottom Line

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,




Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of Murder Takes Time, and A Bullet For Carlos. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 41 loving “friends.”

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10 Responses to “Invisible Characters”

  1. Hi Jim,

    Nice Post.

    In my experience readers all seem to react differently. If a reader is not paying close attention to the book, or if a a reader is interrupted while reading, the characters can slip from his/her mind.

    Sometimes authors continually remind the reader who the characters are, and this can be seriously off-putting if the reader has been paying attention.

    I suppose there’s a balance to be struck.

  2. JJ: You’re right about readers reacting differently. It’s interesting to get emails of differing opinions on characters from my books. And as a reader, I don’t like being “reminded” so I try not to do that when I write. Good points.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Sometimes it’s hard to find a balance. The reader who swallows a book in a single gulp does not need a reminder, but the reader who reads a few pages every night does. I try to write for the fast reader, but sometimes I’m not sure it’s always the right path. It probably depends on the book.

  4. You’re right about that, Dixiane. Either way it’s a tough call.

  5. Great post, Giacomo. Very informative and helpful.

  6. Thanks, Dean. Glad you stopped by.

  7. I was so proud of myself when I figured out the aha moment in the Sixth Sense before the end. Something just felt off and it made me pay more attention to the characters.

    Ref: cow killers
    They always do seem in a hurry to get somewhere, don’t they? I’ve never been stung and I hope to keep it that way. Enough creatures take a bite out of me as it is.

  8. Good for you, figuring out Sixth Sense. I didn’t. And yes, those damn cow killers are always “rushing.” I had one crazy dog that used to track them, then crush them with her shoulder. I don’t think she ever got stung, but who knows.

  9. This post really made me think about my characters. I was subconsciously using some ‘invisibles”to provide those “aha” moments. So far it has worked out really well ( based on positive reader feedback) but now I will certainly give this technique much more conscious thought. Thanks Jim. Always learn so much from your posts.

  10. Dianne: It always amazes me how often we subconsciously do things in writing. I think it has to come from reading and absorbing what we like about other books.

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